From scientific significance to social impact
Over the past 10 years, innovation acceleration has climbed increasingly higher on the agendas of Finnish universities. Here to tell us about what is being done to foster innovation in Finland are three innovation and neuroscience experts, Päivi Eriksson, Anne Patana and Pasi Sorvisto.
True innovation requires organization and leadership
“Traditionally, scientific significance has been the core point in the academic world. Recognition and remuneration systems have been founded on the number and quality of scientific publications,” says Päivi Eriksson, Professor of Innovation Management and the coordinator of the Neuro-Innovation PhD program at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) Business School.
In the past, it has been enough for funding institutions and other stakeholders for research groups to define their hypotheses and setups in their funding applications. In recent years, however, this has no longer been adequate, and there has been a gradual shift towards a framework in which the main goal is to create a social impact. On top of this, there is more and more discussion about the democratization and transparency of research.
” Everybody talks about innovation but a lot needs to be done in Finland to develop, manage and organize innovation processes.”
Eriksson emphasizes the importance of creating common rules for all innovation activity participants, and the fact that there should be ground rules for potential conflict situations.
“People seem to be happy to join the brainstorming phase of an innovation activity. However, from that moment on, it appears as if they would expect processes to somehow autonomously continue moving forward,” says Eriksson. There is a need for new models of operation.
Creating ideas through observation
In early 2021, Biodesign Finland, Helsinki Brain & Mind, and the City of Helsinki began collaborating in the NeuroBiodesign project. The Uusimaa Regional Council also participates in the project as a partner and financier.
“Stanford University has developed the Biodesign concept, which was then further tailored into a method suited for the needs of neuroscience. In this method, interdisciplinary working groups observe development needs, for example, in hospitals”, explains Anne Patana, the Head of Development at the Helsinki Brain & Mind network.
In the first phase of the NeuroBiodesign concept, a multidisciplinary working group will visit sites selected by the partners. A team of three experts from different fields will observe the site for a month to identify issues where improvements could be made using technological solutions.
“For example, one team could set out to observe the city’s psychogeriatric clinic. The team could consist of a medical professional, an engineer, and a service designer. The team will not have a psychogeriatric expert. This way we encourage ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. People who are a little less familiar with the matter at hand may notice something that experts in the field have not even thought of.”
Afterwards the team will go through the few hundred observations they have gathered to try and identify potential needs. Using a systematic process, the team will then select one of these needs and begin to develop a solution that can be commercialised.
“The concept is further developed with the help of mentors. At this point, psychogeriatric experts will naturally also be consulted. The goal is to create a start-up company based on the concept.”
Efforts will also be made to address any other needs that were identified during the process. For example, an identified need or a tentative solution can be offered to an established company for further development.
In the future, this method can be applied to not only specialized medical care but potentially to the sectors of rehabilitation and education.
Patana throws a challenge out to those in charge of healthcare planning and resourcing:
“It would be important to offer training on systematic observation processes for care staff. In day-to-day care work, there is not much time to focus on brainstorming and innovation. Healthcare staff are surely capable of identifying needs, so how do they easily record them and further develop solutions?”
Nurturing discoveries into innovations through market exposure
Another Stanford-born innovation method landed in Finland in May 2017. Since then, the SPARK Finland program has been an incubator for around a dozen Finnish startups and several service solutions.
SPARK selects participants who make initial discoveries that could solve health-related problems. The spectrum of solutions is wide: medicines, instruments, diagnostics, imaging, and AI-based digital solutions. Participants are helped to identify the hidden potential of their discovery and empowered to build both the understanding of business aspects related to their discoveries and the knowhow of the project teams.
“The initial discovery does not have to cover the latest science or technology. It could be about, for example, drug-repurposing. Upon reviewing solutions, we place value on the novelty aspect,” says Pasi Sorvisto, Director of SPARK Finland and the SPARK Europe Program Network.
According to Sorvisto, the innovation services of universities usually offer their support for discoveries at the phase once it is possible to file an invention disclosure.
Commercial insight is the key
SPARK’s mission is to help develop discoveries at an earlier phase, as the understanding of commercial insight, value chain and earning potential are keys to making sophisticated decisions.
”Exposing one’s own hypotheses to the market is important in the initial phases of the innovation process. We take our teams to meet with financiers, those in the industry, partners, and customers. Moreover, we offer them multidisciplinary professional support by bringing mentors to each team for some closed-doors confidential problem-solving meetings.”
SPARK also offers education and courses for university students and researchers as well as healthcare staff. In addition, the European program network produces a series of webinars that further supports innovation development processes on various topics, such as regulation, IPR, business and product development.
There are no solutions without primary research
After four years of running SPARK Finland, Sorvisto says that Finnish discoveries stand out very well on the international stage. In March 2021, the SPARK Finland program received recognition, when Labtech.eu acknowledged it as one of the TOP 25 European Biotech Incubators.
Sorvisto and his team are honored by the recognition, but he says that ambitions are high and that there is no time to rest on one’s laurels.
“Primary research and scientific work create value per se. At the same time, our society is crying out for new solutions for unsolved problems. We wish to set the bar for our own actions even higher. This means increasing active support for projects and empowering the teams that build commercial knowhow. What matters to people the most are value and significance created through real-life solutions,” says Sorvisto.
Cooperation increases impact
NeuroBiodesign and SPARK Finland are currently planning a cooperative approach: NeuroBiodesign teams would join the SPARK Finland mentoring phase, which would enhance the further development of their solution.
”Neurocenter Finland could take the lead in spreading the concept of observation and immersion to other parts of Finland. I am confident that observations that were made at the psychogeriatric clinic in Helsinki, would be beneficial to respective clinics throughout the country. Copying and distribution of good concepts would definitely entail significant impact at the national level,” Patana points out.