How training PhD students in deeptech entrepreneurship can spur European innovation

It takes an average of $2.6 billion and around 10 years for a new drug to hit the market. Most of the experiments to get to this point are still done in a lab — a slow and expensive process that is unsustainable in the face of global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging population.

Riam Kanso

2018, Leonard Woessnig, a German PhD student in Theoretical Computer Science at University College London, wanted to solve this problem by participating in a pilot program that helps aspiring student founders turn their research into deeptech startups. Drawing on a diverse team of researchers at the intersection of artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing, Wossnig created a quantum drug discovery start-up, Rahko, that predicts how drugs will behave early on.

By 2019, the early-stage startup had closed a £1.3m seed round led by Balderton Capitalwhich recognized the team’s “unique approaches to unlocking quantum discovery for chemical simulation” and had become the sole European launch partner of Amazon Quantum Solutions Lab. In 2020, it secured partnerships with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, including Merck.

The following year, Rahko was named Top European quantum computing company to watch and finally was acquired of the biotech company Odyssey Therapeutics, Will the world’s first quantum machine learning-focused startup to reach the exit phase – just three years after launch.

It has now grown from the start of this early pilot at University College London Idea X, a deep-tech venture program for PhD students enrolled in UK universities, I’ve seen this happen time and time again. It’s a simple but proven recipe. They have a PhD team working on cutting-edge research with important real-world applications. They know their innovation could help discover effective treatments for today’s incurable diseases, power carbon-negative cities, or address the future of automation. Through a combination of entrepreneurship training, access to free legal advice, funding opportunities, and expert connections, we help them figure out how to transform their research into a viable deeptech startup.

While not every team ends up on the same path as Rahko, many raise grants and venture capital, build enduring partnerships and become tomorrow’s technology leaders; some change careers and join new startups as technical co-founders; others are returning to the lab with newfound focus, working on research that could change the world in a few decades.

It is difficult to provide an accurate overview of the unrivaled potential for meaningful innovation in Europe’s research laboratories, which, due to differences – and sometimes – remains largely untapped suffocating – IP ownership rules that can make spinout companies uninvestable and difficult to scale.

Conception X has been around for a short time compared to how long it typically takes to scale a deeptech startup – eight to 12 years – but the numbers are already there. Our early-stage portfolio startups have raised over £21m to date, created hundreds of jobs and the program has grown to include participants from over 30 universities across the UK and Europe.

The appeal is clear; Top PhD students are promising startup founders: they are used to dealing with failures when running experiments in their labs and know the importance of perseverance; they are passionate and on a mission to make a meaningful, lasting difference; they are eager to learn and know there are gaps in their experience or knowledge that they need to fill; and last but not least, their products are backed by years of in-depth domain research, giving them the confidence to keep working on technologies that are often not yet applied in today’s world but will be ubiquitous in a few years. Some of today’s leading tech companies were founded by yesterday’s graduate students — think Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis and Shane Legg, and Vaccitech’s Sarah Gilbert.

The Conception X model effectively accelerates the pace of commercialization by working directly with graduate students to help them develop entrepreneurial skills and a business plan while they are still at university without forcing them to drop out. In the UK, this is possible because PhD students often own their intellectual property, particularly when it comes to non-patentable software, and don’t have to go through their university’s technology transfer office when creating a startup based on their research. Even when tech transfer agencies are involved, the conversation tends to be much more productive and expeditious when the student founder has a concrete plan for a product.

Similar initiatives, regardless of where they are launched, can help lead Europe’s collective effort to spearhead the next wave of deeptech innovation and to export technologies and start-ups far beyond where they were originally conceived .

Conception X-Startup Sephri solutions, which developed the world’s first human-sized robot with visual and haptic perception for social interaction, is one such example. The company is based on research conducted on the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems, a joint academic program of ETH Zurich and the Max Planck Society. The end product is a complex combination of next-generation hardware and software, including machine learning algorithms that teach robots to respond to user preferences, behavioral algorithms that help robots respond naturally to interactions with users, depth-sensing devices, to inform movements, and an inflatable boat sensing torso and more. Initial tests have already shown that the robot’s interactions with users – initially limited to hugs – can have a positive effect on their health.

Likewise the climate tech startup capacities, which was co-founded by a Loughborough University PhD student researching intelligent algorithms for demand response, has chosen Finland as its launch market. The team has developed AI-powered cloud software to optimize energy consumption in commercial buildings and, according to initial pilot projects, can achieve a 25% reduction in electricity costs and a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions.

There is no doubt that the future of innovation in Europe will come from its world-leading universities, which play a far more important strategic role than we currently give them credit for. They are not only educational and research institutions, but also breeding grounds for inventors and founders with a tech-for-good vision who work resolutely on solutions for the common good. in one opinion poll When we ran through our cohort last year, we found that 79% of students wanted to commercialize their research for a greater purpose.

This is not an attempt to change the role of universities and manipulate them beyond recognition. Governments should continue to fund the core education and research functions of academic institutions, but research and innovation should reinforce each other – rather than take away from each other. That is, if we are serious, to embark on a unique path for European innovation and use our competitive advantage.

main picture: This is Engineering RAEng


Hear from Riam and many other industry professionals at the Tech.eu Summit taking place on May 17, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. Tickets are now available.

Leave a Comment