A global platform for tracking tech transfer data — is creating something like this even possible? That is what Christophe Haunold, head of the University of Luxembourg’s Office for Partnership, Knowledge and Technology Transfer (PaKTT), wants to get off the ground. If anyone can create this it would be Haunold, a seasoned builder who founded the tech transfer office at the Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse, as well as Toulouse Tech Transfer (one of 13 regional tech transfer companies in France) and then the tech transfer office at the University of Luxembourg.
He’s currently also the president of ASTP, the European association of tech transfer professionals, a job he took on because of his passion for connecting people and generating new ideas collaboratively.
Haunold has learned much in his career, which goes back to 1992, and if he could have one wish for tech transfer, it would be to take the financial motivation out of the equation when thinking about spinouts, allowing people to focus on the impact instead. Haunold explains why.
Haunold references the work of Alison Campbell to harmonise knowledge transfer metrics in Europe, a project she undertook on behalf of the European Commission. You can find out more about this project in our conversation with Campbell.
Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.
Thanks a lot Thierry, thanks a lot for inviting me and I’m really happy to participate in your podcast.
It is a pleasure to have you and it’s really nice to actually be here in person as well. To start with, hopefully an easy one, can you give me an overview of your office with some headline figures?
Sure, but you know knowledge transfer is actually based on the research capacity and resources so I might actually start with some figures about the university. As you know the University of Luxembourg is really a new one. We are celebrating now 20 years of the university so it’s a young university but we built actually a quite powerful research system.
It’s a research university and for instance, we have today a thousand PhD students and almost 300 professors. Another interesting figure might be about the budget. So we get part of our budget from third parties. I would say almost €80m come from these third parties. That’s about a quarter of our global budget and one-third of this external money I would say come from partnership and collaborations. The rest is actually competitive funding at the national and European level.
Now to give you more insights about the research, just about the quality of and the high level of research, we currently have 10 ERC grants which are the European best-level grants. And then it would be interesting maybe to talk about the chairs we have with industrial or private-public institutions and we have currently eight chairs and they are very naturally linked to the country’s priorities. So for instance we work with ArcelorMittal in the field of steel and we have also a chair with SES dealing with space, satellites and another example would be the chair with PayPal, so that’s about finance. So that’s for the university. And as I said a young university and a very young TTO as well.
So the TTO was created in 2020. I was actually recruited to create this central TTO and we have a small team today, six people dedicated to IP and so knowledge transfer professionals. So basically we deal about the intellectual property budget and management and another final figure would be about the 50 patent families that we manage.
Those are some pretty impressive numbers for something that is only 20 years old — or three years old. I’m sure we’ll dive into quite a few of those things a bit more. What is the entrepreneurial culture like in Luxembourg? What did you find when you arrived here?
I’d say all this is pretty new actually so I would say the entrepreneurial culture is probably still to build but there is a very strong political will and there are resources so I’m confident that we will succeed in building this state of mind.
I would say for the researchers in particular we probably have to focus on the PhD students or the postdoc because it’s not so easy for permanent researchers actually to dive into the creation of a new spinoff for instance. So the culture is probably still to build but I would say all the elements are there to do so.
Are you doing anything as PaKTT to improve the entrepreneurial culture on campus?
We actually have an in-house incubator and they are very much involved with students in particular and we also work with a complete ecosystem in Luxembourg. So basically what we do about that is to work with the researchers and this is of course about sensitisation and awareness raising. But I must say it’s very time-consuming so we are trying to do so with a small team as I said before. So it’s basically about talking to the people and showing successful examples.
Do you run any initiatives specifically aimed at women or minority researchers?
This is part of the global university policy so we don’t have specific initiatives for that. Well, it happens that we are very proud now of a very well-recognised spinoff dedicated to education. The company is called Magrid and it’s a woman, it’s a young PhD who created this company so we are very proud of it but I must say it was by luck that it was created by a woman.
Yeah, there wasn’t any kind of specific programme?
No, I wouldn’t say so.
Are there enough entrepreneurs willing to join startups or spinoffs? Is there enough talent outside the founders?
This is definitely an issue, how to create the right team and to find the right founder. So we are working on that because the answer to her question is no, we don’t have enough of them. So we are working especially with the Ministry of Economy and also with FNR which is a funding agency in Luxembourg. And for instance, the Ministry of Economy just designed a specific programme for getting entrepreneurs in-residence and that would be very useful but the issue is still to find the right profiles of course. So that means we have to build the network and that goes beyond Luxembourg of course because of the size of the country.
Yeah, you’re going to have to look internationally. I mean they have to look internationally for workers in any industry.
So yeah, it makes sense that it’s true for startups as well. Are there any sectors where this is working better already?
We don’t have a big track record so we are not talking about the statistics there but I would say it’s linked, very naturally linked, related to our strategical priorities. So we will find projects in the field of education, in the field of data, in a very wide meaning, and health. So this is where we find our spinoffs today.
I don’t think I wrote this question down but I’m going to spring it on you because you mentioned it earlier. You recently had a new vice-rector that was hired. Can you tell me a little bit about this position and how you think it will help create a culture?
Sure, it’s a very positive move because we had previously a vice-rector for research like many universities and this vice-rector is now the rector and he decided actually to create a new position and this new position is for a vice-rector in charge of partnerships and that includes international partnerships and knowledge transfer and technology transfer.
So for me, it’s very useful to have a very strong political demonstration that this is a priority for the university. Of course, it’s part of the third mission but you know that according to different countries and the different universities this mission might be more or less defended and presented to the rest of the world.
So in that case, the message is very clear. This is a high priority and so we are lucky to welcome Marie-Hélène Jobin and she just arrived actually last week so everything is pretty new and she comes from Quebec, from Montréal exactly in Quebec. So we are very happy to have a new political support and very clearly shown.
Yeah and someone with international experience and enthusiasm. I hope she has a lot of enthusiasm.
Oh yes, and energy and we started to work very rapidly actually and she’s got many, many good ideas and a clear view of what she intends to do with the existing teams of course.
Amazing. I look forward to following that closely. Is there an active local investor scene or do you also have to look abroad for that when it comes to raising funding for your startups?
We have an existing scene in Luxembourg obviously. You know finance and investment is quite related to Luxembourg activities. So we will find business angels. So there is a Luxembourgish network for that called LBAN and we find of course VCs. It’s more natural to talk about the greater region so including part of France, Germany and Belgium. And for instance, in Belgium, we find many investors in the field of health. So there again that would be an international approach but we are discussing of course with the local investing ecosystem.
Is there enough physical space for early-stage companies like incubators or even wet labs when it comes to healthcare?
I already mentioned the in-house university incubator…
… that provides actually offices for the new startups or spinoffs. But we have also more technical incubators and for instance, we just created with the support of the government a bio incubator in the House of BioHealth.
And of course, there is also on the same campus as the university in Belval another incubator much related to the Ministry of Economy. So this is called the Technoport. They also provide some space for the entrepreneurs. And you know that space is actually an issue in Luxembourg.
So there is a very high pressure on buildings, on the houses, everything. So it’s definitely an issue and there again we probably have to work with an international vision and maybe to work with the greater region.
How did you build your team? I think you mentioned there were six of you. Were they already in Luxembourg or did you also have to go into maybe your old network in France?
No, no, no. I found some very interesting expertise already in place. These people were working in some of the university entities and already in the field of legal or IP and I just actually gathered them around me for this new team and then we hired new people with the financial support of the Fonds National de la Recherche.
So we had together internal and international recruitment and you are right some people come also from France. I do come from France…
Yes, you do.
… and I also recruited, I would say by chance, it was not meant to be like this, but I also recruited people coming from the SATTs in France, so the accelerating tech transfer companies. But we also got somebody from Germany and somebody from Bulgaria, so we find that very natural international composition of teams that is very familiar to the Luxembourgish ecosystem in any case.
So the usual approach is to think international, so we did actually hire them and they have a lot of expertise, but we are also involved in training. We provide these people with continuous training, for instance using the European network ASTP.
It’s quite interesting that you mentioned Bulgaria there, which I don’t think is a country that a lot of people would have thought of as being that great at tech transfer. It’s not traditionally something that appears on people’s radars, I don’t think.
I must say it was not the origin of the country who convinced me to hire these people because she had experience in Brussels, in France, and so she built actually an experience, so she just happens to come from Bulgaria.
I haven’t spoken to anyone from Bulgaria yet, but maybe that might be an interesting place to look at as well actually. How easy or not is it to collaborate with industry? You mentioned ArcelorMittal as one as well as SES. Is there enough local industry to work with?
The country is small, okay, so we definitely have to work internationally and this is also linked to the culture of the country. So working with a greater region is more natural, but the interest is worldwide. This is also why we work with international companies based in the States and et cetera.
Of course, we are a very important tool in the country because we are the only university. So we obviously have to be aligned with the national priorities and so one of our missions is of course to support the local companies and this is what we are trying to do.
And as in many countries, the situation might be different from a company from another one and there is always this cultural aspect. Is a company ready to work with the university? Because it’s not so easy to work with academics. You’ve got to define the right objectives and you’ve got also to have the right skills within the company in order to organise the collaboration. Sometimes that means that these companies could actually hire people from the university, students, and that is probably the first source for knowledge transfer that goes through the people.
So I would say there is no general rule. Our priority is to bring value to the country, very obviously, and sometimes we can do that using the local companies and sometimes we have to use different tools.
Is the right government support in place for all of this? Is there the right tax frameworks? Is there enough funding for startups or even for training people?
What I felt when I joined Luxembourg, that was three years ago, is a very strong political support. Very strong. There is definitely an analysis which was done about the future of Luxembourg. So you know because you come from here that there were many changes. I mean, this country was not so long ago based on agriculture and steel and mining. Okay. And then there was a big change about financial services. And then there was the choice of creating a university and building a new scheme based on knowledge.
So the political will is very clear and we can feel that every day, I would say. So but this is not only from the Ministry for Education and Research. This comes also from the Ministry of Economy, but also from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, et cetera. So many government offices today come to the university and say, “What can we do together? How can we help you? And how can we build good value for the country again?” So this is very, very clear.
And so we find many, many schemes. I just give one example about the National Funding Agency for Research. And they are very open to all this public-private partnership. So there are different schemes, including fellowships, including co-funding for private research with the university. And so I would say, yes, definitely yes, there is a strong governmental support to these activities.
Which is really good and really interesting to hear, not just as a Luxembourger, but just in general, looking at this ecosystem. I mean, we walked around campus earlier a little bit, and it’s kind of phenomenal to see that they are putting their money where their mouth is, which I don’t think is true in all the places. There’s definitely colleagues that are probably envious of this position.
The campus is really spectacular, really.
Yeah, for anyone who doesn’t… I didn’t know that they integrated kind of the old steelworks infrastructure into the buildings. Like the library was really quite something to behold. I should have filmed this.
Come back and take some pictures, yeah.
I will come back, yes. As you said, you joined the university in 2020 to create the office. Was that what drew you in, or was there something else that attracted you to Luxembourg, or maybe pulled you away from Toulouse?
It was really an exciting challenge. And I was thinking about changing my job because I’d been in the same city for 30 years, and in the same job position. Well, I had opportunities to have different responsibilities in different networks internationally, so I was really looking at international, but still I was based in the same chair, okay, for 30 years.
And this was really a time for changing for me and probably for my colleagues in Toulouse as well. Maybe I was too comfortable, and okay, you see what I mean. So I just started reading the job offers, and I was honestly looking more in the direction of Brussels, maybe, and some activities with the Commission. But when I found this job offer, it really was my description. It was really my profile. And so I did something that I hadn’t done for 30 years. I mean, writing, you know, trying to answer to a job offer. And it was really exciting, yes, to create something new.
I had actually created two organisations like that in France before. First, the first TTO in my university at the time. That was really 30 years ago. And then I created also one of the SATTs, so accelerating tech transfer company in Toulouse. And that was really thrilling. It was really a good challenge. And so I thought, well, that might be, if you like, maybe the last challenge in my career. So let’s try this. And I don’t regret it at all.
Good. Were there any lessons that you learned in Toulouse that you are applying at PaKTT today? I’m assuming so, considering you spent 30 years at that institution.
Yes, definitely. I mean, I used these years actually to build some knowledge about, well, mainly about relationships. And so I probably learned a lot about how to deal with the researchers, also with the governance of a public research institution, and also relationships with the partners. And this is basically what I brought in.
Of course, you also come with your own tools, you know, that includes the tools for managing a team, and also very professional tools. But I would say the main lessons were about relationships.
And, you know, this work, this job is almost only about relationships and managing problems. We never celebrate enough. We are always dealing with complicated situations and trying to find solutions. But when we do, and when there is success, we are already diving in the next problems. And so we don’t take enough time to celebrate and congratulate the persons when we succeed, which is very often, if you think about it.
Yeah, that’s quite interesting. I know we talked a little bit about this over lunch as well, that you don’t celebrate enough. And I don’t necessarily mean you as PaKTT, but just this kind of sector as a whole is often struggling a bit with getting the message out about the good stuff that’s happening.
Are there any aspects of Toulouse Tech Transfer, the SATT that you helped create, that you think Luxembourg should adopt?
There is definitely an issue about, what we call in France, the maturation, which is bringing projects to higher maturity. You can use technology readiness level, TRL levels, to measure that, for instance, but not only — there are other tools.
We use here the KTH tool, which is quite useful…
… for instance. And so this is an issue for everybody in the world, basically. The projects we get from the universities are not major. And this is normal, especially on the axis of market knowledge about your potential customers and readiness of the product, of course.
So POC, proof-of-concept and maturation, can be really developed using what we learned with the SATTs. For instance, there was a study from Bpifrance, so the public bank in charge of the SATTs, I would say now in France. And they demonstrated that the spinoffs created with the support of SATTs were quicker to raise funds, basically, but in a very notable way, three or four times quicker.
That was really important. So that demonstrates that actually to be attractive for investors, if you work on this maturity increase, then you’re just better. It’s very simple. So this is something we could probably have a look at in Luxembourg.
And of course, we can also learn from licensing good practice, and this is very important. I think the SATTs also brought interesting reflections about investment funds, including funds controlled by the public sector or the public research sector, in order to provide a better support in the phase of the spinoff creation, which is always a very difficult phase, a very risky phase.
And then I would probably conclude by saying that, considering the size of the country, it’s very natural to look at what happened with the SATTs, because the SATTs in France were dedicated to region. So it was the idea of getting the right size, the right perimeter of action.
We concluded that to have a given TTO or maturation fund at the scale of one single institution is probably not very efficient, because you cannot get the right competencies in every institution. And we have several research institutions in Luxembourg, only one university, but several institutes for research. And so the SATT was the answer to the choice, do we have very local and numerous entities, or do we have one unique central? And the answer was, okay, one central for a given region, for a given size. And the size of Luxembourg would justify that we organise something shared in common.
Which is very interesting to think of. I mean, I know Luxembourg is tiny, but it is quite interesting to think of Luxembourg having the size for one SATT. And I know that politicians are probably open enough to that idea as well, having seen what is happening in France. As open as politicians can ever be.
Yes, you’ve got to take the operational people on board, and they have to build the idea and to buy the idea as well. This is what we experienced in France with the SATTs. In some places, it was not so easy to build a new institution, a new tool like a SATT, because there was a question of trust. So you have to build trust between the pre-existing structure or offices or whatever, when they face a new organisation and with new responsibilities. And so we have to share the objectives and to share, again, the successes.
As we said, you are also the president of ASTP, which I think pretty much everyone who listens to this will know. What motivated you to take on that position?
I’ve been involved in networking for a really long time. Because when I started the job, I just finished my PhD, and then I went for one year in Australia because I was doing my national service at the time. There was still a compulsory national service in France. And so I was working at the French embassy there in Canberra.
And it was really interesting because I had the occasion to work on the partnership scheme between the two countries, France and Australia. And so I discovered the pleasure of working in the network and having new ideas built by very different people. And so when I came back, actually, I was interested by this sort of position.
And by chance, I found my first contract with a university. And I just said, OK, I’m trying this for two years and then I see. OK, 30 years later, I was still there. And so at the very start, I needed to learn about this, because it was at the time rather new in France. But we were not as advanced as the States, for instance, at the time.
And so I joined some networks. At the time, there was a network called TII. And there was also the French network called C.U.R.I.E.. And so I joined that to get some trainings, very basically, and to exchange good practice. And so I got involved. And I really like it, because I like relationships with people.
And so I also took the responsibility of the French network, the C.U.R.I.E. network. So I was the president of this network for four years. And I believe very much in cooperation and exchanges. These are very complicated jobs if you think about it. We are dealing with many problems. And it’s very important to be able to phone a friend and say, ‘Oh, I got these issues. And how did you do on your side?’ And it’s very important to meet. And this is why we organise these annual conferences and meetings and workshops. And face-to-face is very important. So we are lucky enough to be again in face-to-face. And so this is extremely important also for being in good humour and having some psychological support in difficult times.
Yeah, yeah, you need peers to make it through the day sometimes. What is your view of the European ecosystem as a whole? Is there something that works well and something that isn’t working well?
Oh, this is a very ambitious question, I’m not going to answer that. The European situation is very complex because it’s very heterogeneous, actually. If you consider, I don’t know, the southern countries or the eastern countries, they have very difficult situations sometimes in order to find the right resources.
You can find very different ecosystems. It’s not only a question of resources. It’s also a question of what is your industrial background. And have you got companies around universities? Have you got investors? Have you got clients? And so we work a lot on that, especially with the European Commission.
I don’t know if you’re aware of the new guidelines published by the Commission. And there are also some communities of practices, and they are building some codes of practice in order to help the different ecosystems in Europe.
I would say basically what we need is more capacity building, especially with the younger ecosystems or not-so-well-developed ecosystems. We need some guidance. That’s very true. And we need these good practice exchanges. And there is a platform for knowledge valorisation, which is online, where you can find good ideas.
And basically, we also provide trainings. And I think this is very important. Trainings, we can see that at ASTP, I mean, there are more and more people asking for trainings and exchange of good practice.
So this is what I would suggest to go on building this global capacity building for Europe. So we are not doing so badly compared to the States or Asia. We have probably a question of communication about our results. The annual survey from ASTP is now out and you can find some figures about the activities about knowledge transfer in Europe. And this is really good. The question is, how do we communicate this? And the other question is, are we using the right indicators? When are we happy with our knowledge transfer activities? Is that a question of creating spinoffs? Is that a question of creating jobs? Is that a question of getting better impact? And I’m not talking about only financial impact, of course.
Yeah. I mean, if there is someone out there who has figured this out, I don’t think they’ve told anyone yet. It’s a question that I think everyone is grappling with. What are the indicators? And how should we measure this? Because a number of spinouts isn’t…
It’s not enough. We have to consider what do the young companies do? I mean, what the final objective is, that it cannot be only about raising funds and making business. It should be about impact. And I’m talking about social, environmental impact, of course.
And so we work a lot with the Commission. And the Commission ordered actually two reports about indicators. And you probably read them. It was organised by Alison Campbell at the time. And we are still working on that.
And there is also an international initiative led by ATTP, which is the Association of the tech transfer professionals worldwide, created by ASTP and also AUTM in the States, et cetera.
And so we are discussing the possibility of having a global database about all knowledge valorisation activities. But this is not so easy, because especially if you talk about measuring impact, this is not in our capacity to measure, alone, impact. Because impact is not created by research bodies. Impact is created by third parties — our spinoffs, other companies, associations, citizens, governments, whatever.
That’s quite interesting, actually, the idea of having a global platform. I know ASTP, I think their report is free. And I think Australia makes it free. AUTM has it partially behind a paywall. And it’s possibly not as public as it could be or should be. That’s an argument to make. But yeah, I can see that a global database would be challenging to build.
We must agree, actually, on the indicators. And there is also the question of the representativity. Because the ASTP report, I think this year, just quoting from memory, got more than 400 TTOs respondents. So this is quite representative. If we try to do that on an international basis, there will be an issue about getting reliable data from given countries. So that’s a challenge.
Yeah, and then it’ll skew in favour of the States, Europe, and possibly Australia and China. And the rest of them will…
There is an international association called the ISTA, if I remember well. They deal with Asian countries, including China. And I participated to several talks with them and conferences. And I know they are working also on this question of indicators.
But then there is also political issues. Because the indicators are also dedicated to convincing your funding bodies. So of course, the political approach is very different in the States, in China, or in Europe.
I hadn’t even really thought about that the indicators would then be used to convince governments.
And even if you take the UK example, it’s directly linked to the funding you receive, which is a bit frightening for many countries and many institutions.
I think it was frightening in the UK as well. I think they got used to it now.
I think they’re still frightened. No, I mean, it really changes your views and your way of working. If you know what the impact of the indicators will be.
Yeah. If you had a magic wand, what would you change about technology transfer, either here in Luxembourg or more broadly?
Let’s take it more broadly, because I think the most important thing is related to the mindset. And this is why a magic wand would be really necessary because it’s not something you change very easily and quickly.
I would say the main issue is about mutual understanding. My feeling is that most of the issues, most of the problems, come from a lack of understanding. And that could be between the researchers and administration of the university or between the academic world and the private companies. And so I think with a better understanding, we just generate less stress.
And so we can actually then dedicate our time and resources to positive activities and not to dealing with relationship issues again. So the resources we need for that is, of course, staff, skills, money. So I would say your magic wand could also create additional resources in this way. But to me, the first issue is really about what people have in mind and do they share the same objectives? Because if they’re not able to design projects and programmes with clear objectives and shared objectives, then it’s more difficult.
The issue is the same when you create a spinoff. Why would somebody create a spinoff? What does he expect from that? Recognition, money, success, excitement? I don’t know. There are many very internal and intimate reasons for that. And why would a university help in creating a spinoff? That must be also very clear. The university is not an investor. OK, so the expectations are quite different. But we must have common objectives. If not, the project won’t happen, very simply.
And my second wish with the magic wand would be probably to generate a different motivation and a different drive. I must say that in spite of the big challenges we face now, the main indicators remain financial ones. And in spite of the different appearance and the new discourse that we have from people, political people and so on, who talk about climate change, about the new challenges we face, at the end of the day, the final evaluation will be financial. So I would like that your magic wand just changes this and suppresses or deletes this financial obsession and allows people to really be sincere about the impact they are looking for.
I think you are the first person that wished for the money to be taken out of the equation.
We need money. OK, we cannot do without money. But to me, it should not be the major and final indicator. I understand that investors, I mean, they have a specific job and we know exactly their expectations. There is no surprise. But I’m just saying that we cannot rely on this financial system only just to survive in the coming years.
A formidable challenge, really. You’ve already mentioned Magrid, I think it was. Are there any other examples of spinouts or maybe even technologies that were licensed directly to industry that you would want to highlight?
Yes, I talked about Magrid because of the education and edtech, which is a very interesting domain for us. So, yeah, Magrid is about teaching of mathematics regardless of the language, which can be very important in Luxembourg because we have to deal with many languages here.
I have two other examples more dedicated to health, because this is one of our priorities as well. So the first one is based on organoids. Well, this is research also about the neurodegenerative diseases. And so this is about creating human-specific mini-brains. And that helps with the discovery and development of drug candidates targeting Parkinson’s disease. And so we have licensed with a local spinoff here from the university, which is called OrganoTherapeutics.
And the other example is a system emulating the human gastrointestinal tract. And this is put on a chip and this is called micro gut that basically elucidates some of the fundamental mechanisms underlying the gut microbiota. OK, and so this is extremely important. And we are negotiating now a licence on this technology developed at the University of Luxembourg.
I can’t remember what it was, but I know there was an important discovery made around Parkinson’s here quite recently as well. So it’s an area of strength for the university.
Yes, definitely. And we have a chair dedicated to this, and we also attract extremely high-level scientists in this field.
Maybe that should be my next written story about Parkinson’s at Luxembourg.
I hope. I hope to bring you feedback in the coming years about the huge success of that.
Amazing. That is almost all the questions I had. Was there anything else that you wanted people to know about your work?
Yes, I got a message actually. I just want to say that actually science and knowledge production are really worth it, because as I said, we have to face now huge challenges. Probably the first time in the humanity’s story about this kind of scary challenges and maybe deadly ones.
OK, so I think that faith or beliefs and money won’t be enough. OK, we have to understand the world. We have to change our attitude and our actions, and we have to adapt. And for that, I think that science, not only technology but also humanities and social sciences, can provide some answers and solutions as long as we use these scientific results — and this is our job, I mean — by transferring this knowledge to the society.
So my conclusion is that also knowledge transfer professionals are just essential next to the scientists and working together with them.
Those are some very wise closing words. Christophe, thank you so much.