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Opening Up Innovation

April 23, 2013
Open Innovation has become a major theme in the life sciences over the last couple of years. Most of the attention has focused on initiatives where big pharma offers access to non-core assets to outside researchers in the hope that they will develop them successfully or form collaborations. In Sweden, AstraZeneca have followed this path, but interest in the concept has spread further down the discovery chain, generating creative initiatives from universities, tech transfer organizations, government and biotechs.

BIO-X is an open innovation vehicle run by Uppsala BIO. It was established in the Stockholm-Uppsala Region of Sweden almost ten years ago to act as an independent bridge-builder between universities, healthcare and industry. According to managing director Erik Forsberg, BIO-X turns the normal approach on its head: "Rather than taking existing assets from pharma and asking researchers to find new applications," he explains, "we start by asking clinicians and companies to define their needs then announce open calls for proposals to research institutes and small biotechs, offering to support their ideas through to proof of principle."

"For the proposals selected, we adopt a project-steering role, ensuring that the partners collaborate in a structured way," says Forsberg. "We arrange funding of up to SEK 2 million ($600,000) for up to two years and, if necessary, handle things such as legal agreements, for which academic partners may be ill-prepared."

Life science companies are invited to partner with the projects. By providing their support and insights into, for example, product development, they may gain a first right of negotiation for the results.

So far, BIO-X has issued nine calls and evaluated more than 250 proposals, 18 of which have been funded. The latest call, for hospital-acquired infections closed recently with 35 applications.

Back in September 2011, Roche's global innovation program, called  EIN (Expanding the Innovation Network,) selected BIO-X as its first partner for open innovation in Europe, citing the region's strong academic research, credibility in healthcare, a structure to coordinate collaborations and the ability to support start-ups.

The partnership is bearing fruit. In February, Roche agreed to support a new BIO-X project run by Karolinska Institutet spin-out Liquid Biopsy in cancer diagnostics. The project will evaluate a new technology to isolate and measure all types of suspended cancer cells, including circulating tumor cells from blood, paving the way for better cancer treatments. The project will get access both to the BIO-X process support and Roche's global R&D capabilities, offering access to equipment, services, reagents and know-how, as well as financial support for the project for up to two years.