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Denmark’s Open Entrepreneurship program: A model to emulate?

This article appeared in the June 2023 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

Eight Danish universities have been collaborating in a commercialization model they call Open Entrepreneurship (OE), working across and beyond university boundaries to turn world-class research into industry-leading spinouts. The model’s results suggest it may be worth studying as a way for schools in the U.S. and other regions to leverage their separate innovation and entrepreneurship activities into a stronger collective whole by focusing on the entrepreneurial skills of researchers.

The OE initiative is supported and powered by the Danish Industry Foundation and the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science. The foundation provided OE with a DKK$35 million grant (about $5 million USD) to contribute to the initiative’s vision to become a leading technology commercialization community that generates value for society. OE began as a pilot project in 2017 and went nationwide in 2019. On a daily basis, the project is led by an ‘Open Entrepreneurship Hub,’ which is located at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This hub facilitates collaboration across the universities.

The OE concept is based on the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship (BMoE), and UC Berkeley is a strategic partner to OE. BMoE is a hands-on approach to learning entrepreneurship that emphasizes understanding the mindset and behaviors of successful entrepreneurs, who tend to share similar traits such as being open to risk, trusting others, being willing to fail, and a belief in one’s ability to succeed. (For more detailed information, go to https://tinyurl.com/3epm3wkm.)

Ken Singer, managing director of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology (SCET) at UC Berkeley, partnered with DTU to advise on its OE initiative and to help Danish researchers become more entrepreneurial with inspiration from BMoE.

“The researchers might not have the same entrepreneurial aspirations, but OE seeks to stretch their mindset and inform them about entrepreneurial opportunities,” Singer says. “We want to develop a mindset and capabilities to help them approach commercialization,” building a base of know-how that will support the universities in their effort to expand market-focused research translation.

Like many regions, Denmark is filled with distinguished researchers, and OE serves to help capture that knowledge, early on, through an action-oriented approach by connecting experienced entrepreneurs with researchers. The end goal? To explore commercialization and innovation opportunities — whether entrepreneurial (spinout or startup company) or intrapreneurial (within the university, company or organization) and to make the transition from research to business as attractive as possible to all parties involved. These connections help researchers gain a deeper understanding of a path forward for their innovations, which, in turn, helps the existing commercial ecosystem that exists among the universities (i.e., tech transfer and business development units) reap more benefits from the researchers.

Separate business units

Each of the Danish universities participating in OE has created a separate business unit that is backed by top management and consists of people who have an entrepreneurial background and academic insight into different research fields.

The business unit managers, along with the researchers, jointly identify research that has commercial potential. They also put together teams made up of researchers and external entrepreneurs, who work together to mature promising ideas for new companies. The match-making typically occurs before researchers have clear results or specific technologies to commercialize.

“The special approach that OE has to match early research with serial entrepreneurs has proven to be an effective engine for developing solutions within the green transition and other societal challenges. It’s not enough to develop new technologies. It’s only when the technologies are part of a production and brought to the market that they can make a difference,” comments Helle Nielsen-Elgaard, group leader of policy and ecosystems and head of innovation for Open Entrepreneurship in DTU’s Centre for Technology Entrepreneurship.

These business units set OE apart from other entrepreneurship programs because the units are embedded directly in these cutting-edge research environments. That proximity allows them to capture and develop as much value as possible from the research done at the participating universities by matching researchers with seasoned entrepreneurs and angel investors. These professionals (who traditionally are external to the universities) are invited directly into the lab environment and become co-founding team members for the research-based start-ups, typically in a role as CEO or co-founding board member.

A “disruptor”

At Aarhus University, Jonas Brandt, head of business development and OE lead with The Kitchen Entrepreneurship Hub and ESA Business Incubation Center, says that OE is a “disruptor of sorts,” but it doesn’t tread on the TTO’s well-groomed turf.

“We want OE to extend the TTO, not to replace it,” he says. “For the most part, TTOs continue to do business as usual — assessing research and applying for patents. We respect the autonomy of each individual university. For example, if a researcher wants to spin out, the patent is handled by his/her own TTO.”

Brandt says what OE is really focused on is opening up a way to encourage more commercialization without focusing on IP alone. “We’re engaging [researchers] to take entrepreneurship more seriously,” he says. “We’ve changed the landscape.”

MedicQuant ApS is a spin-out from Aarhus University that illustrates the OE model’s impact. Founded in 2019, the company’s technology was developed by its co-founders in the Gothelf Lab within the university. They found that OE gave them access to pitch training and similar activities that they used over and over, and without which the technology’s potential may not have been realized, Brandt explains.

The open environment made it easy to exchange knowledge and experiences, and to collaborate on specific issues across disciplines and sectors, which enabled the university to identify the spinout potential much earlier than before the OE model was implemented, he says.

Investor moves onto campus

Claus Kristensen, a partner at Accelerance, a pre-seed investor and start-up accelerator in the Nordics, says the firm decided to move their office into “The Kitchen” at Aarhus to achieve closer collaboration with the university and Open Entrepreneurship.

“We had established a new fund where we planned to invest in up to 90 Danish start-ups,” he says. “The platform at The Kitchen and OE made it easier to collaborate and to get a closer look at everything that comes from the university.”

While Brandt says that there’s no specific rulebook to follow when it comes to collaborating, the OE participants do meet every quarter. Meeting locations are rotated among the participating universities, and everyone spends one to two days together sharing active cases, providing feedback, and matching investors and mentors.

“There’s no sparring,” Brandt says. “We’re all working together to solve problems for each other and not just following a bunch of rules on paper. We’re facilitating infrastructure to facilitate successes.”

Singer adds: “We don’t know where the conflicts are until we gather together. Many colleges and universities tend to narrowscope. And while it’s important to stay within your cultural norm, gathering [as an OE group] poses an opportunity to see those edges and to discover where those boundaries intersect. It’s a little like therapy. It feels good not to be alone.”

So, what’s in store for the future of OE? Brandt says that their first round of funding ran out in 2021, but the program was so successful that it was extended through 2023. He believes that many universities will find a way to continue through a combination of dedicated resources and government assistance.

“The foundation has been set and OE has really resonated with Denmark,” Brandt says. ‘It’s succeeded in creating attention, bringing world class research to the world stage. and creating value to society through action.”

Similar model in Oklahoma

Can a similar model work in the U.S.? Four Oklahoma institutions are working together using a similar philosophy with a somewhat different focus, pulling IP and research strengths together to be more competitive with more advanced innovation ecosystems.

Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Tulsa, and Tulsa Innovation Labs have joined forces to create”Canopy Healthtech,” a philanthropic, multi-year initiative to speed up the commercialization of telemedicine innovations.

The initiative accelerates the translation of IP at Oklahoma universities into commercially viable virtual health technologies and helps to connect Oklahoma clinicians and technologists with each other, as well as the local and national innovation ecosystems.

Fueled by George Kaiser Family Foundation and Tulsa Innovation Labs, Canopy HealthTech’s mission is to leverage the strengths of each institution to develop technologies that will deliver easier health care access to traditionally underserved patient populations. Canopy will help these innovations to reach their potential by providing business, regulatory, marketing and funding expertise through its network of clinical and academic experts.

Canopy Healthtech Executive Director Rachel Lane, PhD, RD, believes that so-called “flyover” states like Oklahoma — ones that are less competitive for federal funding — should not only consider creating a similar collaboration, but they must.

“Oklahoma universities are not required to join the network, but it’s a great way to create critical mass around an industry sub-sector or technical niche,” she says. “We need to develop knowledge economies to be competitive in larger markets. You can’t do that with just one institution.”

The funds and mentoring that Canopy provides to the participating universities’ inventors are funding a greater number of start-ups, and as these companies choose to stay and grow in Oklahoma, the state gains a critical mass of business and a workforce that can uniquely differentiate its telemedicine strength and give Oklahoma a competitive economic edge in that field.

Like the OE model, the Canopy Healthtech offers a solid menu of support, including:

CanopyPREP: Collaborating with innovation partners across the midwest, Canopy PREP provides academic clinicians and technologists from Oklahoma universities with educational sessions that cover the ins and outs of converting university IP into commercial products, along with clinician-led conversations that explore the most critical healthcare challenges.

CanopyFUND: Nondilutive concept- and seed-stage funds are awarded to virtual health technologies powered by participating universities’ IP.

CanopyCOMMENCE: An immersive experience for CanopyFUND awardees that expedites the time-to-market for IP in development.

Lane, who has been the director for less than six months, says that thus far she has not run into any issues concerning multi-university IP issues. She adds that an oversight committee ensures all information is held confidential and works to ensure all parties are satisfied with the end results.

Contact Singer at Ken.Singer@berkeley.edu; Nielsen-Elgaard at helnie@dtu.dk; Brandt at jobr@uu.dk; Kristensen at csk@accelerace.io; and Lane at rlane@ou.edu.


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