María Dominguez: “Transforming ideas into tangible innovations can amplify the impact of basic research”

11 de July de 2023

Interview with Dr. María Dominguez Castellano, principal investigator of the Mechanisms of growth control and cancer group and coordinator of the scientific program of Genetic & epigenetic basis of individuality and aging at the Instituto de Neurociencias (CSIC-UMH), on the importance of basic research to promote advances in innovation.

  • Expanding basic Research: Fuelling New Diagnostics, Medicines, and Technologies

Q: Research conducted at the Institute of Neuroscience (IN, CSIC-UMH) spans various disciplines, from molecules and cells to circuits, systems, imaging, and devices. How do you envision the potential of basic research to drive advancements in technological innovations, diagnostic tools, medicines?

A: Basic research is vital in driving advancements in technological innovations, diagnostic tools, and medicines directly or indirectly. By exploring the fundamental aspects of development, cell and system biology, and disease, researchers lay the foundation for transformative breakthroughs. Understanding the underlying mechanisms and principles of brain function, for example, can uncover new targets and pathways that can be exploited for discovering and developing innovative medicines and may also enable the development of cutting-edge technologies, such as novel imaging techniques, robotic devices, or advanced diagnostic tools. By continuously pushing the boundaries of knowledge, basic research drives the translation of scientific findings into practical applications that will benefit society.

  • Bridging Basic Research and Commercial Opportunities

Q: For scientists primarily focused on basic research, what opportunities do you see in terms of protecting and commercially exploiting scientific results? How can the pursuit of protection and commercialization enhance the impact and sustainability of their work?

A: For scientists immersed in basic research, the quest for protection and commercialization of their scientific results may seem distant or inapplicable to them. Yet, hidden within their basic research may lie the untapped potential for innovation and protection, which we must learn to recognize. By safeguarding and commercializing the scientific results, researchers shield their work from premature appropriation, fostering collaboration with industry partners and unlocking new funding opportunities. 

Ultimately, by protecting results, scientists can intensify the impact of their work while also fostering sustainability by leveraging financial resources from the industry.

  • Fostering Innovation and Business: A Catalyst for Scientific Output

Q: You authored several patents, participated in the entrepreneurship Programme CSIC-Dinamiza, were selected for the business program COMTE-Innova and your group has been recently funded with a MICINN Proof of Concept grant, to explore the commercial application of your prototype flyGear. Given your experience in turning scientific results into innovation, what would you say to a scientist with innovative ideas but concerned about sacrificing too much of her/his scientific career to develop these ideas?

A: You must maintain the delicate balance between pursuing innovation and preserving your scientific career. It is essential to be aware that venturing into innovation is time-consuming. Still, it does not necessarily mean sacrificing your scientific career. In fact, it can enrich it. Think that transforming ideas into tangible innovations can amplify the impact of basic research, attract new opportunities and expand our network of contacts. Collaborating with industrial partners or seeking corporate support can provide more resources, guidance and expertise, allowing further development of ideas without compromising one's scientific career. A scientist-entrepreneur can leverage his or her scientific prowess to create new avenues of discovery with greater potential for societal impact and economic growth.

Q: Amidst recent global turmoil, scientific innovators have demonstrated resilience. As a scientist with a genuine innovation vision, how do you think basic science researchers could be further encouraged to start and develop new innovation projects? What are you doing to stimulate innovative thinking in the scientific/technical staff of your laboratory?

A: If we have learned anything from these turbulent times is that scientific innovation is crucial. To encourage basic science researchers to undertake and develop innovation projects, a supportive ecosystem is paramount. We must promote interdisciplinary collaborations and provide mentorship to encourage scientists to attend innovation-focused workshops, conferences and networking events that broaden their horizons.

In my lab, I strive to stimulate creative thinking among scientific and technical staff by encouraging curiosity, risk-taking and open-mindedness. I promote brainstorming sessions, facilitate collaboration with other scientists, and provide mentoring opportunities to guide researchers in driving scientific discoveries that can lead to translation discoveries and innovations. But to inspire scientists to unleash their inventive potential and help meet the challenges of our time, we need to foster an environment that values and rewards innovation.

  • Balancing Research Publication and Intellectual Property Protection

Q: Our office of innovation and tech transfer at the IN (IN.Pulse) identifies and nurtures early-stage opportunities for IN researchers. However, we frequently face the challenge of researchers prioritizing publishing results over protecting intellectual property (IP). How can we strike a balance between the need for researchers to publish and the importance of safeguarding their results to facilitate potential economic returns?

A: Finding a balance between publishing research results and protecting intellectual property (IP) is undoubtedly a difficult challenge. To address it, fostering a culture of awareness and understanding is essential. Educating researchers about the value of IP protection and its potential impact in facilitating economic returns and new research opportunities is crucial. Emphasize the benefits of protecting IP from the outset, such as attracting industrial collaborations, securing funding, and enabling commercialization. I had the advantage of being part of the Botin Foundation program for researchers for 5 years. A scientific manager visited me every month or two months and encouraged me to proactively collaborate with innovation and technology transfer offices at an early stage to explore the possibilities of IP protection and commercialization. One possibility is to implement policies or guidelines that outline the process and timeline for IP protection, ensuring that it coincides with the researchers' publication plans. Collaboration between your office and IN's researchers can lead to important strategic decisions about when and how to protect IP, helping researchers to publish essential findings while safeguarding commercially valuable aspects of their research.

  • Role of the innovation units

Q: In your view, how can our innovation office (IN.Pulse) assist IN’s researchers in their innovation projects? .

A: IN.Pulse innovation office is pivotal in assisting IN's researchers with their innovation projects. Your office is already providing Guidance and Mentorship to researchers in developing and commercializing innovations. One way to improve it providing training, workshops, and access to experts in intellectual property, market analysis, and entrepreneurship.

Regarding Funding Opportunities, your office can identify and provide information about funding opportunities for innovation projects, partnerships with industry, or access to venture capital, and send emails with the upcoming deadlines and links to the grant opportunities. The emails should be short but concise so that researchers do not have to navigate through all the information in the links or web pages. Your office is doing so, but perhaps in a more individual way, and a general email with the tag innovation may alert new researchers to embark on innovation. The work that your innovation office does in Networking and Collaboration is also crucial. Helping researchers connect with potential stakeholders, gain insights into market needs, and find avenues for commercialization may encourage them to protect their results.

Another important role your office does in assisting the researcher in navigating Intellectual Property Management. Researchers need to be aware of this help and that they will get expertise and support from the office in patent filings, negotiations, and technology transfer. IN’s researchers must know they do not need to do it alone!!

Q: Which innovation model at public research institutes do you think is more effective in the long term?

a) Principal investigators (PIs) define an innovation project and the innovation units seek funding for its development.
b) Innovation units define innovation projects and seek funding for its development with the support of PIs.
c) A mixed model.

A: Regarding the most effective innovation model, a mixed model (c) that combines elements of both approaches may be more effective. This model involves fostering collaboration and communication between principal investigators and innovation units. It allows PIs to bring their expertise and ideas to the innovation process, while innovation units can provide specialized knowledge in commercialization and project management and recognising hidden potential innovative results. This collaborative approach harnesses the strengths of both sides and encourages a multidisciplinary approach to innovation.