Prof. Aleksander NAWRAT: Time for innovations!

Time for innovations!

Photo of Prof. Aleksander NAWRAT

Prof. Aleksander NAWRAT

Deputy Director of the Polish National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR).

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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The role of the public administration is to stimulate and support the activities of the scientific, economic and financial sectors. The future of our country depends on this activity and readiness to set ambitious goals – says Prof. Aleksander NAWRAT 

Anyone who has ever tried to undertake the realization of their own passion or business dreams does not need to be convinced that it can be a rocky road with surprises around the corners. It all looks optimistic at the start: a group of scientists or young entrepreneurs get a great idea and are enthusiastic to start work on a project that promises to be great. Sometimes, they manage to receive external support, maybe even get to a prototype of the technology,  but straightaway they have faced once again with the problem of raising funds for further development. The company wants to enter the market and commercialize their brainchild,  but they have already burned through their funds for research and development.

In economics, this moment in the life cycle of an enterprise is called the “valley of death”. Those who pass through it scale their business up, improve their products and gain new markets. The transition to the other side turns out to be crucial and difficult for many, even very promising, business projects. Therefore, the National Center for Research and Development develops mechanisms that not only enable real potential market gems to be discovered,  and supported at a very early stage of activity, but also help co-finance their further development, using private capital and market mechanisms.

Our BRIdge Alfa program is designed for enterprises in the seed phase when the risk of investment failure is the greatest, but where proof of concept is relatively low cost. From the investment vehicles created thanks to the support of NCBR, the innovators receive not only co-financing but also business advice from managers experienced in running a business and commercializing projects. Thanks to this approach, the funds supported by NCRD, which underwrites them, not only demonstrate a rich portfolio of companies but also have also started to see the first fruits of their investments. A good example is StartVenture@Poland, which co-financed the work of Polish scientists on artificial blood. The fund supported NanoSanguis and NanoThea to the tune of PLN 1.6 million, co-creating NanoGroup SA today. In December 2017, the company launched on the WSE, and an opening, the share price of the company increased by over 5 percent.

Overcoming the “valley of death” is a success that leads … to another challenge: “Darwin’s Sea”, in which little fish are eaten by large, often international sharks. At this stage, many young, inexperienced entrepreneurs decide to sell their ideas, often at unfairly low prices. To prevent such situations, NCBR was one of the first institutions in Poland to begin to implement programs oriented to build a market of venture capital funds, focusing their activity on R & D projects. Launching the Corporate Venture Capital fund and the TDJ Pitango Ventures fund last year was a milestone in the development of the VC market in Poland. Their activity means not only a huge injection of the so-called “Smart money” – money that will work towards market innovation over the years – but also the development of managerial competencies in management teams. We believe that all of this will enable more effective financing for the development of breakthrough technologies, which will allow Polish companies to grow and flourish further afield.

It is worth recalling some commercial successes, especially those that are shared by researchers, entrepreneurs, and public institutions. One such example is the modular “Grot” assault rifle – developed by the Military University of Technology and the Radom armaments manufacturer. The NCRD financed R & D work on innovative solutions for demonstrating the technology used in this weapon. Last year, the Ministry of National Defense decided to equip the Polish army with the Grota C 16 FB-M1, and the contract to provide 53 thousand rifles totaled PLN 500 million. In the arms and aerospace industries, such examples can be multiplied. How many of us remember that the infrared detectors onboard the Curiosity Rover were developed and manufactured by Poles, as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, and the Polish company VIGO System – the NCBR beneficiary behind the project – has the status of an official component supplier for NASA today?

These examples show that the National Center for Research and Development has created an effective ecosystem to support innovation. Remember, however, that the role of the public administration is to stimulate and support the activities of the scientific, economic and financial sectors. The future of our country depends on their activity and readiness to set ambitious goals.

We have courageous researchers and innovators in Poland who can easily compete for grants and patents with their colleagues from the USA or Western European countries. I meet such people, not only working at the university but also working with them in interdisciplinary teams created in NCBR. Why, then, do Polish scientists seldom reach out for the support available to them? In 2017, the European Research Council grants received only three Polish projects; in comparison, British scientists – the leaders of this list – at the same time accessed the EU funds over 170 times. In this context, it is worth recalling once again an example that clearly shows that Poles have great, untapped potential. Professor Piotr Sankowski, a member of the NCBR Council, has won three ERC grants: ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant, ERC Proof of Concept Grant and ERC Consolidator Grant. This is just one, outstanding example. Why is the list of Polish names so short in these projects? I will leave this question unanswered.

The changes proposed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education are intended to unleash the potential of Polish science: two acts on innovation, and the Constitution for Science. Under the new regulations, it will be easier for universities to commercialize the results of their research, set up their own companies, so-called spin-offs, or establish cooperation with business. It will be worth observing what benefits will come from this loosening of the regulatory reins, whether and how quickly it is possible to release the dormant potential especially that of the young, professional and already very internationally experienced research staff.

When I look at the successes of Polish companies, I’m not only full of admiration but also pride. Many of them are partners or beneficiaries of the National Center for Research and Development. Last year we announced 64 competitions. We have supported 3702 projects with a total co-financing of PLN 18.5 billion. These numbers show the scale of our activities. By implementing its programs, the NCRD also promotes an attitude of entrepreneurship. We believe that creativity combined with knowledge and experience bring the best results.

Aleksander Nawrat

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