By Margaret Harris in Brussels
For an event built around celebrating Europe’s best scientific spin-out companies, the Academic Enterprise Awards got off to a downbeat start. “Europe is lacking growth, lacking jobs and lacking entrepreneurial appetite,” declared Joanna Drake, director of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within the European Commission. Such enterprises “have a difficult life, and this is getting worse, not improving” agreed the event’s second speaker, MEP Maria Da Graça Carvalho of Portugal. Then there was Roland Siegwart, vice-president for research and corporate relations at ETH Zurich. In a splendid bit of understatement, he lamented the fact that many bright scientists at his university “have a somewhat not awake entrepreneurial spirit”.
Such pessimistic comments were greeted with sympathetic nods from the science entrepreneurs, business leaders and university officials at the event, which took place on 4 June at the European Parliament in Brussels. But as the afternoon wore on, some bright spots emerged. Eight of them, in fact. In the day’s second session, each of the eight finalists for the Academic Enterprise Awards had to explain what their company does – in three minutes or less.
The result was a torrent of amazing ideas. Treatments for drug-resistant cancers. A system for recycling low-temperature waste heat. Wireless communication using visible light instead of radio waves. Heat-sensitive coatings that luminesce when they undergo structural changes. A way of making concrete floors that produces 35% less carbon dioxide. A method for analysing single cells quickly and cheaply. Plus two others that, to be honest, went by too quickly for me to grasp what they were about.
The awards were divided into four categories, covering spin-outs in the life sciences, materials/chemicals, energy/environment and information/communication. Although there was no specific category for physics-related spin-outs, the discipline was nevertheless well-represented. That single-cell analysis method, for example, was developed by a company called Sphere Fluidics; its chair, Andrew Mackintosh, is a physicist. And the heat-sensor firm, Sensor Coating Systems, also has a physics connection: its managing director, Jörg Feist, got his undergraduate degree in physics before switching to engineering.
Of the two, only Sphere Fluidics emerged as a winner, beating the drug-development firm BerGenBio in the life-sciences category. Sensor Coating Systems, meanwhile, lost the materials category to the concrete-floor firm, Abeo – the co-founder of which, a charismatic young business-school student called Alexander Wulff, hasn’t even finished his degree yet. For people like him and the other finalists, it seems, the “entrepreneurial spirit” is very much awake.