Companies that are active in the field of ophthalmology were asked to report on their interest and their experience in collaboration with scientific institutions. A questionnaire was constructed for this purpose and companies were questioned. At the end of February 2012 the questionnaire was sent for the first time to decision takers at the respective companies.
In the frame of a EC funded project "Gateway to Vision Research in Europe" (EuroVisionNet) workpackage IV (“Public Private Partnerships”) we are studying the possibilities for research collaborations between private companies and academic scientists in the field of vision research and ophthalmology in Europe. We are convinced that these collaborations can be profitable for both sides. However, we think that these collaborations are still not at a level as might be wished. To improve this situation we contact you to ask your opinion on this subject.
Initially, only a few replies were received indicating that the interest in a PPP network was small. After direct telephone contact and after re-sending the questionnaire the number of replies could be considerably increased. Some of the telephone contacts were extremely interesting and gave also good, sometimes even better, insights compared to the questionnaire in the opinion of the companies on the issue.
Nearly 12% of the companies replied. This is slightly more than could be expected for this kind of survey. However, of course the survey can by no means reach statistical significance. Interestingly, most of the companies that replied were small and middle sized enterprises (SMEs). It is generally very difficult to reach the right person in internationally acting big companies who are able and willing to fill in the questionnaire. In addition, it can be assumed that the big companies already have contacts with the appropriate scientists or that they are able to get the contacts without external support and are therefore not relying on a network.
The first four questions in the questionnaire were generally answered positively. There is a general interest in collaborations with academic partners. Some companies have collaborated already with academics. They searched for the appropriate partners themselves. Generally, being contacted by academic scientist with proposals for collaborations on particular themes would be greatly appreciated. The companies could be contacted by email, telephone or by direct interaction at congresses and symposia. If an interest in the proposal would exist then a more detailed discussion and the creation of a work-plan should follow.
Possible themes for collaborations were clinical studies, comparative studies, the verification and validation of results, safety and efficacy studies. In addition, support for production and marketing were named. Finally, the development and validation of (computer) models were suggested as a theme for a possible collaboration.
Some companies claimed that the secrecy and confidentiality as possible problems because they are generally handled differently in companies and in academia. Whereas confidentiality and secrecy of data are extremely important for companies, publication of the results is of great importance for academics. Furthermore, intellectual property (IP) was identified as possible problem. It is advisable to settle these themes a priori in a contract. Sufficient juridical support is mandatory.
Three companies collaborate with academic partners in the frame of public programs. The other companies would certainly be willing to participate in such collaborations. Bureaucratic hurdles, lack of appropriate programs and the absence of matching funds (often required from companies) were the main causes for not initiating collaborations. When the companies had experience with collaborations, they were generally positive or moderately positive about it.
As some companies were contacted by telephone some interesting interactions ensued that should be mentioned here.
The CEO of an SME (in this case less than 100 employees) reported to have had negative experience in the collaboration with academic partners. He did not fill in the questionnaire because it was not appropriate for his situation. The existing programs were not pragmatic enough and the bureaucratic hurdles were too high. His experience with potential academic partners was that these partners were mainly only interested in financial support for certain studies, for instance in the support for doctorate students. The results of these studies were not interesting for the company and could not be used in the development and production endeavours of the company. Because the company was too small to install internal structures that could supervise these collaborations, it was considered to be too time consuming to search for appropriate programs and to identify appropriate topics. The CEO was therefore relative pessimistic that his company would start collaborations in the future that could be profitable for his company. For very small companies (for instance with only two employees) collaborations are completely out of the question. One middle-sized international company was not interested in a discussion at all. The request for a discussion with one of the decision makers was blocked and a request for a reply was not answered. A big international company (more than 1000 employees) reacted on the telephone request with interest. However, a reply after resending the questionnaire was not received.
The numbers of replies to the questionnaire shows that the interest in a network on Public Private Partnerships in the German speaking areas is relatively low.
The bigger and the more international the companies are, the more difficult it is to find the appropriate contact person and to receive a reply. The contact persons often change and nobody feels himself/herself responsible.
Presumably big companies have established collaborations already or search for partners themselves. When interested in a collaboration, financial support from public sources will probably of no importance. Big companies have probably sufficient juridical support to work out the contracts and to defend their own rights.
SMEs often do not have the time and the financial means to be engaged with scientific projects. It is impossible to create the internal structures with employees that dedicate themselves to such collaborations. Furthermore, the SMEs did not always have positive experience with scientific collaborations. Often they were just regarded as sources for financial support, for instance for dissertations. The scientific results were not pragmatic enough and could not be exploited by the company. The possibility to come to develop a good contract and to defend the companies’ interests was lacking. Finally, The bureaucratic hurdles are too high. Lack of time and insecurity lead to a situation in which collaborations are not even considered.
Already at the other meeting organized by the PPP subproject of the EuroVisionNet project it was experienced that in not only the German speaking areas but in the whole European area it is still a long way to go before reaching a situation in which well-coordinated collaborations between scientific institutions and industry in the field of ophthalmology and visual science can be established (see e.g. the white book “A Vision for Horizon 2020” the chapter “The future The Future of Private Public Partnerships in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences” by Jan Kremers). The outcome of the survey confirms this general experience. There is an overall lack of interest to support Public Private Partnerships in ophthalmology and visual science in German speaking and European areas by establishing a network and by developing an independent institution for supporting such a network.
However, although the implantation of a coordination point for contacts between industry and scientific institutions in the field of ophthalmology and visual science that simultaneously is a lobby that can guide the political decision makers who publish new scientific calls is very ambitious in the face of the above results, we are convinced that such a contact point would be advantageous for all the involved parties. Particularly SMEs, good small scientific institutions without visibility (yet) and young scientists could profit from such a contact point. In addition, the policy makers (e.g. at the EC) could profit from the contact point because they could be supported in issuing calls that really could reach the target groups (for instance SMEs). In addition, a contact point could lower bureaucratic hurdles, could give juridical support and could help in establishing a good work program for scientific studies that are performed in collaboration.
To reach the above described goals, a dedicated institution could be enormously advantageous. Apart from being a contact point for industry and scientific institutions, it could be an independent representative for ophthalmology and visual science in Europe. An additional challenge for the organization would be the establishment of a lobby for SMEs and for smaller scientific institutions with a good reputation but without appropriate visibility. It might be interesting and important to help them to profit from grants and public programs. An institution as an independent network could not only be desirable but also even necessary to gather information, to promote the network and to bring possible partners into contact with each other.
Find more information on the website of EuroVisionNet
is supported by the European Commission, Research Directorate-General under the grant agreement No HEALTH-F2-2008-200641 (SP1-Cooperation).