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Just about every country has identified life sciences in some form or other as a priority for academic and commercial development. But what will characterise the countries that may in the end prevail?

  1. The research community needs a high degree of autonomy. The European University Association released an interesting study,
    Ireland's Highest Peak

    The rigidity and frigidty of state controls. (Photo credit: mozzercork)

    University Autonomy in Europe II: the Scorecard, in 2011, assessing the degree of institutional autonomy universities in the various EU member states enjoyed. The countries with the greatest university autonomy were from northern Europe: Denmark, Ireland, UK, Finland, Sweden Latvia, Lithuania. Those with highly regulated and state controlled systems were from southern Europe, or had systems where the state just likes to intrude: France, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy and others. To be fair, some countries were more or less autnomous on different indicators, but the rough distinction can be drawn. Surprisingly, at least to me, was the middling performance of countries like the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. No doubt various higher control states will endeavour to justify why the state needs to be so intrusive, but as evidence that this is perhaps an unhealthy state of affairs, we see the highly instrusive French state over the past year moving to create greater diversity and differentiation in funding for its universities with greater autonomy (see this news item for instance). Clearly, greater autonomy necessitates greater diversity and differentiation and in the end some will need to become better than others. While we would like to think that all universities are essentially the same, reality suggests that the only real equality lies in the extent to which they all meet minimum standards, rather than all trying to meet some arbitrary ‘gold standard’.

  2. The bulk of significant research results in life sciences is undertaken in centres known as academic health science centres (AHSC). This is a theme I warm too, as it provides an organisational model that drives innovation from the clinical user end, rather than from the research end. Yes, more research funds are always needed, but we also need solutions. Efforts to operationalise translational medicine are doomed to fail if the driving forces are not coupled to the clinical user and innovation policies in general need to start with problems needing solutions, and hence a factor more likely to be evidenced. Only a few countries have AHSCs — such as US (over 50), Canada (about 14), Sweden (1), Belgium (1), Netherlands (8) and the UK (5). (Note: reforms in the UK look set to expand the AHSC model into networks) Germany arguably has at least one as does Italy. France has none. The challenge (and this was the subject of a paper I presented on academic health science centres and entrepreneurialism) is that while universities are more likely to enjoy degrees of autonomy, hospitals are less likely to. The UK was only able to move toward establishment of AHSCs when the state control of the hospitals was relaxed through successive periods of NHS reform. The Netherlands model built on existing relationships. Countries without AHSCs, though, will confront the twin challenge of institutional autonomy of both universities and hospitals.
  3. Not all countries will be able to do everything in life sciences. This entails setting some priorities. National priorities are hard to conceive, because countries usually think of themselves as being able to do everything and so efforts for instance, get diluted and underperform. Cash is tight these days (think debt) and governments just cannot afford everything, so the most difficult challenge is establishing priorities.  There are ways to set research and innovation priorities (I’ve developed some approaches if there is interest), and they help deal with the challenge of deciding where to start. Not all research produces winners, but the state is really bad at picking winners. When it tries to pick winners (aka, national champions), state and political interests dominate over reality; the result is an expensive mistake, and we all know hubris keeps politicians from changing their minds — as it would evidence of having make a mistake.

The Academic Health Science Centre undertakes three important missions:

  • they treat patients

  • they conduct research

  • they teach the next generation of clinicians

The AHSC model, as a structured and integrated organisational form, is most developed in the US, Canada, Netherlands, UK, Sweden and a few others, and emergent in other countries.

They are a distinct and probably unique type of organisation, quite expensive to run (annual revenue streams on the order of €2 billion or more), very complex and home to a diversity of stakeholders. Often, AHSCs are thought of simply as teaching hospitals in a loose affiliation with universities but this underpowers their role.

The AHSC represents the most robust model of an institution that could be seen as sitting at the nexus of innovation and entrepreneurialism in health sciences. They essentially own the challenges facing us in the biomedical and treatment arenas, and have access to, or indeed may own, their own research capacity to solve those problems – they can be seen as both producer of new knowledge and consumer of it. And through their role in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge (i.e. teaching), they can influence future priorities, and clinical treatment practices within healthcare systems. As large and potentially well connected organisations, they have the potential to access considerable sums of start up capital, and spin-out a variety of new companies.

Not all teaching hospitals have the capacity to be an AHSC. Not all universities become an AHSC simply by linking their medical schools to a hospital, anymore than simply bolting on some labs to a hospital creates productive research capacity.

Virtually all countries, and regional economies, prioritise biomedical research probably within at least their top 5 areas of investment – despite frequently have significant deficiencies. While thinking that an AHSCs may be seen as the best local solution, local capacity can be lacking or weak. A critical worry is that AHSCs will be created from small, dysfunctional, and poorly performing institutions into large dysfunctional and poorly performing institutions, wasting public money, frustrating researchers and would-be entrepreneurs, weakening treatment capacity, and failing to deliver the innovations.

Internationally, AHSCs should be seen as sitting at the top of the healthcare pyramid, providing care from the simplest up to the most complex, and with unique expertise. While challenging to national/regional innovation strategies (which are often parochial in perspective), AHSCs should be at the forefront of international collaborations and integral to globalisation of knowledge transfer and evidence-based care.

Therefore, creating an AHSC as a driver of innovation and home to entrepreneur is not to be undertaken lightly.

One aspect of the AHSC that is particularly important to conceptualise and operationalise effectively is how they commercialise their intellectual property as a result of being both owners of problems, and creators of solutions to these problems. Risks here include inappropriate de-risking of research, premature efforts at commercialisation, confusion over ownership of the work itself, and conflict between institutional components on the methods to choose. These all track back into the AHSC itself, and how it is governed and how the executive suite and board, decide what can and cannot be done, or done well.

The paper draws on the author’s professional experience of working in an AHSC, working with an AHSC in thinking through their commercialisation strategy, and comparative policy research on commercialisation of research and strategies.

What is an Academic Health Science Centre?

AHSCs come in many forms. Understanding why particular arrangements are needed is important to ensuring that AHSCs are not created out of poorly performing component institutions. They are not simply an aggregation logic for pooling knowledge and capabilities. AHSCs can be vertically integrated providers through to a confederation of autonomous institutions. In some countries, the structure of AHSCs is accredited, mandated or otherwise designated, while in others, they emerge as a logical and rational solution to various research/ treatment/ teaching challenges. In addition, AHSCs also form networks for further collaboration.

Depending on national funding systems in higher education and in healthcare, AHSCs may have to deal with a large number of government ministries or agencies (in addition to health and higher education: social/community care, research councils, labour, industry/commerce ) which may be at differing levels in government (national/federal, state, local) as well as charitable and international sources. With this comes a diversity of public supervisory and oversight arrangements, which unsurprisingly may conflict on a number of levels: research priorities, service delivery objectives, degrees of institutional autonomy, and not to ignore the diversity of political interest which may complicate this further.

And within this mix, the challenge of coordination looms very large, to accommodate the autonomy of constituent parts, public accountability and institutional mission.

How should AHSCs organise themselves to conduct research and development for commercialisation?

AHSCs should be understood as accelerators of innovation. In virtue of owning the problems, they can disseminate new practices, enhance the evidence base for treatment options, and alter the very structure of service delivery itself.

Therefore, a critical issue for an AHSC is how they go about commercialisation, that is, operationalising the acceleration and dissemination of innovation and how they enable the entrepreneurial nature of researchers.

Particular challenges arise when higher educational institutions and healthcare organisations are state owned and run, with the result that staff (academics and researchers) are public employees or civil servants. This has the potential to create difficulties for individuals who may wish to be entrepreneurial yet retain their relationship to those issues which sparked the innovation in the first place.

Problems in this area have been raised by the French government with respect to the visibility and commercialisation of national research from state-owned laboratories and from the universities themselves. Institutional restrictions on commercialisation can create conflicts as in the UK where the universities pursue one approach while NHS hospitals use NHS/Department of Health commercialisation strategies.

External sources of seed capital are faced with constructing sensible funding arrangements in this environment. This has led institutions such as Karolinska in Sweden or Imperial Innovations in the UK to create an entrepreneurial subsidiary to deal with the commercialisation process. We are a long way from simple technology transfer here.

What are implications for policy: on research, on commercialisation and on higher education?

At some level, AHSCs are ill-defined in the European context, what their characteristics are, how they are organised and perform. Sensible investigation is needed to identify the performance, role and function of AHSCs in Europe, and to understand whether they are in fact a nexus of innovation or a quagmire of bureaucratic interference.

We need lessons and cases to draw on to understand how to structure appropriate innovation policies that may require the formation of high performing AHSCs that can be breeders of entrepreneurs. We also need to think beyond biomedical research as the potential scope of AHSCs includes innovations in systems and ways of working, health information technology and software, medical devices and not just medicines and so on. This nexus of innovation is very broad.

As someone who sees the challenge of AHSCs through both the institutional as well as policy lens, some key areas of priority are implicated and which are presented as conclusions:

  • Funding of AHSCs is not quite the same as funding the constituent parts, so national policies need to be harmonised if AHSCs are to become effective accelerators of innovation and enablers of entrepreneurs. This will raise coordination challenges for governments as the incentives they deploy may come from different pots of money with differing purposes.

  • Institutional design is important and only suitably high performing institutions should comprise an AHSC; this has implications for whether a national accreditation system should be used (England), or policies and initiatives to advance the role of AHSCs (Canada).

  • Commercialisation design is important and plays to national policies on public ownership of publicly funded research, whether state-owned research infrastructure should be disposed off to non-state ownership, with corresponding implications for the employment status of entrepreneurs. National taxation and entrepreneurial policies can be remarkably short-sighted and counter-productive; we really need to understand how bad some national legal frameworks are, and how good others are. AHSCs will be embedded in these legal frameworks, so how productive they can be is linked.

  • We really need to understand how national policies can encourage the introduction of high performing AHSCs where none exist, or prune the numbers of AHSCs if they have proliferated without also achieving high levels of (international) recognition and performance, or enable existing AHSCs to be real drivers of innovation.

NOTE:

Presented at the 2012 Entrepreneuriship conference in Maastricht in March 2012: see here for more details.

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