Dr Falko Schlottig is Director of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwest Switzerland (FHNW), in Muttenz. He advises start-up companies in the life sciences and has founded start-ups himself.
In our interview, he explains how the School of Life Sciences would like to develop, why close interdisciplinary collaboration is so important and what future he foresees for the health system.
You come from industry and have also been engaged in start-ups yourself. Is it not atypical now to work in the academic field?
Falko Schlottig*: If it were atypical, we would be doing something wrong as a university of applied sciences. Many of the staff at the FHNW come from industry. That’s important, because otherwise we could not provide an education that qualifies students for their profession and because through this network we can drive applied research and development forwards. With our knowledge and know-how we can make a significant contribution to product developments and innovation processes.
Is this how the FHNW differs from the basic research done at universities?
It’s not about making political distinctions, but about a technical differentiation. As a university of applied sciences, we are focused on technology, development and products. The focus of universities and the ETH lies in the field of basic research. Together this results in a unique value chain that goes beyond the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. This requires good collaboration. At the level of our lecturers and researchers, this collaboration works outstandingly well, for example through the sharing of lectures and numerous joint projects. On the other hand, there is still a lot of potential in the collaboration to strengthen the life sciences cluster further, for instance in technology-oriented education or in the field of personalized health.
Does “potential” mean recognition? Or is it a question of funding?
Neither nor! The distinction between applied research and basic research must not become blurred – also from the students’ perspective. A human resources manager has to know whether the applicant has had a practice-oriented education or first has to go through a trainee programme. It’s a question of working purposefully together in technology-driven fields even better than we do today in the interest of our region.
Are there enough students? It’s often said there are too few scientists?
Our student numbers are slightly increasing at the moment, but we would like to see some more growth. But the primary focus is on the quality of education and not on the quantity. What is important for our students is that they continue to have excellent chances on the jobs market. Like all institutions, however, we are feeling the current lack of interest in the natural sciences. For this reason, we at the FHNW are committed in all areas of education to subjects in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM subjects.
You have now been head of the School of Life Sciences at the FHNW for just over a year. What plans do you have?
We want to remain an indispensable part of the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. We also want to continue providing a quality of education which ensures that 98 percent of our students can find a job after graduation. In concrete terms, this means that we keep developing our teaching in terms of content, didactics and structure and follow the developments of the industrial environment and of individualization with due sense of proportion. In this respect, we’ve managed to attract people with experience in the strategic management of companies in the industrial field and people from institutions in the healthcare and environment sectors to assist us on our advisory board.
In research, we will organize ourselves around technologies based on our disciplinary strengths and expertise in the future and will be even more interdisciplinary in our work. We will be helped by the fact that we are moving to a new building in the autumn of 2018 and will have one location instead of two. In terms of content, we will establish the subject of “digital transformation” as an interdisciplinary field in teaching and research with much greater emphasis than is the case today. Finally, we should not simply be part of this transformation, but should be helping to shape it.
Apropos “digital transformation”, IT will also become increasingly important for natural sciences. Will the FHNW train more computer scientists?
Here at the School of Life Sciences we are successfully focused on medical informatics; the FHNW is training computer scientists in Brugg and business IT specialists in Basel. But we also have to ask ourselves what a chemist who has attended the School of Life Sciences at the FHNW should also offer in the way of advanced IT know-how in future – for example in data sciences. The same applies to our bioanalytics specialists, pharmaceutical technology specialists and process and environmental engineers. Nevertheless, natural science must remain the basis, enriched with a clear understanding of data and related processes. Conversely, an IT specialist who studies with us at the School of Life Sciences also has to come to grips with natural science issues. This knowledge is essential if you want to find a life sciences job in the region.
Throughout Switzerland – but also especially in the Basel region – there is a lot of know-how in bioinformatics. But from the outside, the region is not perceived as an IT centre. Should something not be done to counteract this perception?
We do indeed have some catching up to do in the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland. The important questions are what priorities to focus on and how to link them up. Is it data mining – which is important for the University of Basel and the University Hospital? Or is it the linking of patient data with the widest variety of databases in order to raise cost-effectiveness in hospitals, for example? Or does the future lie in data sciences and data visualization to simplify and support planning and decision-making, which is one of the things we are already doing at the School of Life Sciences? The key issue is to know what data will serve as the basis of future decision-making in healthcare. Here it is also a question of who the data belongs to and both how and by whom the data may be used. This is one of the prerequisites for new business models. Since we are engaged in applied research, these issues are just as important for us as they are for industry. This hugely exciting discussion will remain with us for some years to come.
The School of Life Sciences at the FHNW covers widely differing areas such as chemistry, environmental technology, nanoscience and data visualization – how does it all fit together?
It is only at first glance that these areas seem so different – their basis is always natural science, often in conjunction with engineering science. The combining of our disciplines will be even better when they are all brought together in 2018, at the very latest. You can see it already, for example, in environmental technology: at first glance, you wonder what it has to do with bioanalytics, nanoscience or computer science. But the School of Life Sciences is strong in the field of water analysis and bioanalytics, and one of the biggest problems at the moment is antibiotic resistance. To find solutions here, you need a knowledge of chemistry, biology, analytics, computer science and also process engineering know-how. As from 2018/19 we will have a unique process and technology centre in the new building, where we will be able to visualize all the process chains driving the life sciences industry today and in the future – from chemistry, through pharmaceutical technology and environmental technology to biotechnology, including analytics and automation.
You’ve been - and still are - involved in start-ups. Will spin-offs from the School of Life sciences be encouraged in future?
We are basically not doing badly today when you compare the number of students and staff with the number of start-ups. But we do like to encourage young spin-off companies; at our school, start-ups tend to spring from the ideas of our teaching staff. Our Bachelor students have hardly any time to devote themselves to starting up a company. On the other hand, entrepreneurial thinking and engagement form part of the education provided at the School of Life Sciences. After all, our students should also develop an understanding of the way a company works. A second aspect is entrepreneurial thinking in relation to founding a company. The founding of a start-up calls for flexibility and openness on our part: How do we deal with a patent application? Who does it belong to? How are royalties arranged? Our staff have the freedom to develop their own projects. Our task is to define the necessary framework conditions. We already offer the possibility today of a start-up remaining on our premises and continuing to use these facilities. We have reserved extra space for this in the new building. We also make use of all the opportunities that the life sciences cluster of Northwest Switzerland offers today. This includes, for example, the life sciences start-up agency EVA, the incubator, Swiss Biotech, Swissbiolabs, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area, BaselArea.swiss and also venture capitalists, to name just a few. We are well-networked, and here too we are doing what we can to help foster the development of our region
Why do you think it is apparently so difficult in Switzerland to establish a successful start-up?
There are two factors in Northwest Switzerland that play a part: a very successful medium-sized and large life sciences industry means the hurdles to becoming independent are much higher. When you found a start-up, you give up a secure, well-paid job and expose yourself to the possible financial risks associated with the start-up. The second big hurdle is funding, especially overcoming the so-called Valley of Death. Compared with the second step, it is easy to obtain seed capital. Persevering all the way to market with a capital requirement of between one and five million francs is very difficult.
That should change with the future fund.
It would of course be fantastic if there were a future fund of this kind to provide finance of between one and two million francs. This would finance start-up projects for two or three years. In this respect, it is incredibly exciting, challenging and moving to see the whole value chain from research to product in use, to be familiar with networks and to be involved. Today this is almost only possible with a start-up or a small company. But in the end, every potential founder has to decide whether he or she would prefer to be a wheel or a cog in a wheel.
Will the healthcare sector look dramatically different in five or ten years?
Forecasts are always difficult and often wrong. The big players will probably wait and see how the market develops. The healthcare sector may well look different in five to ten years, but not disruptively different. We will see new business models, and insurers will try exploring new avenues. This may lead to shifts. At the moment we are experiencing the shift from patient to consumer. On the product side, the sector is extremely regulated, so it is not easy to launch a new and innovative product onto the market. In my view, many regulations inhibit innovation and do not always lead to greater safety for the patients, which is actually what they should do.
How could this transformation be kick-started?
I believe that we at the University of Applied Sciences in Northwest Switzerland have a major contribution to make here. For example, we take an interdisciplinary and inter-university approach collaborating on socio-economic issues based on our disciplinary expertise within strategic initiatives. In this way we are trying to our part to help find solutions or answers. Switzerland and our region in particular have huge potential in this pool of collaboration. This now needs to be exploited.
Interview: Thomas Brenzikofer and Nadine Nikulski, BaselArea.swiss
*Prof. Dr. Falko Schlottig is Director of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) in Muttenz. He has many years of experience in research and product development and has held a variety of management positions in leading international medical device companies. Falko Schlottig has also co-founded a start-up company in the biotechnology and medical devices sector.
He studied Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry. He holds an Executive MBA from the University of St Gallen.