Associate Professor Wiktor Szymanski (UMCG) is still struggling with his role as figurehead of HTRIC at this time when it is not yet clear what the exact course will be. Figureheads, set at the prow of a ship, look in the direction the ship is heading. They look hopeful, a bit handsome and presentable. But they don’t chart the course, he says.
With his heart and soul, Wiktor is a fundamental scientist at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the UMCG and the Stratingh Institute of Chemistry of the Faculty of Science and Engineering.
His heart lies with the lab, with that one molecule, that one component, developing the concept. However, to actually achieve clinical applications, such as medicines or devices, HTRIC is desperately needed.
HTRIC could become a bridge: translating a clinical problem into clinical solutions through research.
He paints the ideal picture of what HTRIC could be with an example: suppose Wiktor develops a chemical compound that allows a surgeon to easily make a tumour visible during surgery. It turns out that this molecule attaches selectively to tumour cells. By that time HTRIC would work on making it suitable for the market: the findings are repeated under strictly controlled conditions, someone has to do the animal testing, and someone has to already think about a possible patent. This person needs to be well-paid and have a lab to carry it out. These should be professionals judged not by the number of publications but by their products, Wiktor states. They do not necessarily have to publish papers. “We are actively omitting the publish or perish pressure.” It can simply be compared to original research technicians. If possible, PhD students can join for a while to experience the continuation of the process, which is an excellent addition to this student’s CV.
Companies are the first necessary sanity check for what scientists invent
The three chosen themes within HTRIC are well-chosen and suitable for being able to work this way, Wiktor believes. However, he also warns that, as far as he is concerned, a physical building is one of the prerequisites for HTRIC to succeed. It should not become merely a platform to exchange ideas, not just another institution. HTRIC should not be only a vehicle for what already exists. If you want to make a difference, it has to happen inside a building with people and laboratories. In the end, it will depend on the budget available and the financial reality in which HTRIC will operate. Moreover, HTRIC must be careful in choosing the problems to be solved. If you want HTRIC to succeed, you should choose a number of products from ‘Groningen’ that will be realised and in use within clinical practice in five years.
Wiktor Szymanski perceives the companies that join HTRIC as the first users. They are the first necessary sanity check for what scientists invent. “Great idea, but you can never sell this”, they might say. Or vice versa: “This will work. I like it. Shall we apply for a grant together?” It’s essential to execute the sanity check at an early stage.
When is HTRIC a success for Wiktor? He doesn’t have to think twice about this: “When the first patient is injected with something we have developed in our lab. Primarily, as scientists, we do something simple. To say it bluntly, we develop white powder in a laboratory. But what if a doctor uses what you’ve developed to help someone else and improves that person’s quality of life or health through something that started as an idea in your head? Come on, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”