Prof. Hélder Santos

Head of Biomedical Engineering at the UMCG

Research

The “I” in HTRIC makes a difference

According to Hélder Santos, “we” do not have to be modest in Groningen. He mentions that showcasing research is essential. We shouldn’t only do that on a website, but we need to get people to Groningen to show them what we can do here.

Professor Hélder Santos has been the Head of Biomedical Engineering since 1st of September at the University Medical Center Groningen/University of Groningen. He is involved in the development of biomaterials, nanoparticles and nanomedicines for biomedical applications.

He explains how nanomedicines can bring proteins to the right place. Diabetes patients would benefit from this because it could mean that they do not have to inject insulin because a pill could be enough to do the trick. That would be extremely meaningful for these patients, given the negative effects on the body when having to inject daily insulin. And this is just an example.

A university knows how to develop this kind of nanomaterials and nanosystems, but does not have the capability to mass-produce them. In order to start such a procedure within HTRIC, it is therefore essential to enthuse companies to work together. “We look at the portfolio of companies from our own expertise, and then we invite them for an interview. This leads to a lot of extra work for the scientists because you have to learn how to pitch to companies. These are very different from the ones in the scientific world”, says Hélder. However, we should not think too small either: HTRIC may be located in the north, but it is still essential to consider international companies because they are probably very interested in what we do here nonetheless.

Using technology for products that can benefit patients

It is not exactly clear yet how HTRIC will be shaped. That is why Hélder feels free to tell what his hopes are for the coming years and what HTRIC ideally could become. “I think the best thing is that HTRIC brings people together with different backgrounds and expertise to transfer the results within science to society; using the established technology for products that can benefit patients in the future.”

Scientists are already working together. We do not necessarily need HTRIC to facilitate that. They can just knock on a colleague’s door. “Therefore, we have to think about what we want to design together. Medical doctors know what they need, science has the know-how and the skills to design something – in my case – to design something that brings the medicine to the right place inside the body, for example. So why not look for a business partner that has the facilities to scale-up this technology; converting the research into real products within the Research to Business (R2B) chain. Such a product can be anything: an implant, a medical device, as long as the healthcare system benefits from it. Therefore, my vision for HTRIC is that it facilitates this route.

“It is not always necessary to hand everything over to a company in order to make an impact.”

Hélder explains that to bring the business community into clinical practice and the university, you need to balance carefully. You do not only need to find the right niche markets but also be careful not to share your ideas too early in the process, out of enthusiasm, because they might not yet be ripe for further production.

Market analysis: another term that makes scientists uncomfortable. However, Hélder admits it is important nonetheless. When and how can our technology make a difference? For whom? Why is this unique and what sets it apart from the competition? The truth is that businesses are easier to get onboard or make interested as soon as you can show them a prototype of a medical device or a sensor, for example. Vaccines are more complex, though. A company prefers to receive results from in vivo testing as well. Therefore, we should make sure that we always have specific data available on, for example, immunological reactions and toxicity.

It is not always necessary to hand everything over to a company in order to make an impact. However, for a start-up you need another mindset: think like an entrepreneur. That is not that easy for most scientists. Hélder experienced that when he co-founded his own start-up. Scientists and clinicians are well aware that their research is valuable, but Hélder emphasizes that the research is especially valuable when it can be applied. This is much more common in the United States and emerging China, where scientists are more concerned about patenting, for example. In Europe, there is still a big hurdle to overcome, which he discovered in his past experience. HTRIC could also support scientists to enter into partnerships with companies for product development.

It is less complicated to match science and businesses, if a company comes up with a specific problem for the solution it is seeking. But then we have to prevent HTRIC from merely working on behalf of companies. It is necessary and complex to develop a balanced partnership. Hélder specifies that to obtain this, it requires specific people within HTRIC, for example, patenting writing support, a contact person for the companies, specialists in the field of intellectual property. But also people who know-how to set up a start-up or spin-out AND can find funding for it. Scientists are good at writing papers and grants, but probably less enthusiastic to write patents. Moreover, scientists do not have enough time for that.

“Involve your bachelor students, the undergraduates, because you learn the most when you are young.”

“A new generation of young researchers is open to it, but they are not yet trained. So we have to teach them as well.” Hélder explains that this is also where HTRIC plays an important role. Involving the students, undergraduates and postgraduates, and also post-docs, he says, because you learn the most when you are young. It would be great if we, within HTRIC, could also introduce students of biomedical engineering to the processes of the development of a product, by introducing courses on innovation, patents or by teaching them about intellectual property, and involve them more with companies, for example. Those are skills they will need in the future.

According to Hélder, HTRIC will grow extensively in the coming years and has all potential to become a great successful story. He is in favour of applying for a Grand Challenge for research that is difficult to find funding for; a grant to develop a proof-of-concept for high-risk and high-gain projects. HTRIC could also become a place for career development by developing tenure tracks in collaboration with the faculties to support assistant and associate professors towards full professorships.

That is his future dream for HTRIC. To get off on a flying start with HTRIC, Hélder would like to create different prototypes, ready to be scaled up in the foreseeable future for healthcare applications. This is to show what HTRIC can do. “Our groups and other colleagues at UMCG/UG have already fantastic clinical translatable work in progress. It would be great to bring this under the HTRIC umbrella.”

“The “I” in HTRIC stands for Innovation. This means that we should always think about a practical application of our research. The “I” reminds me that HTRIC should be more than a cluster of ideas. HTRIC has to be more than an institution that floats somewhere in the cloud or a plan on paper that looks appealing. I am strongly convinced this will be the perfect ecosystem/hub for transferable technology by bringing all the parties together to work on medical problems.”

Contact

Professor Hélder Santos is the Head of Biomedical Engineering at the University Medical Center Groningen/University of Groningen. He is involved in the development of biomaterials, nanoparticles and nanomedicines for biomedical applications.

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