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Linger on the idea — Interview with Valeria Mozzetti Rohrseitz of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer at UNIFR – Venturelab

04.08.2022 08:00, Tracy Woodley

During the summer months, we ask people who stimulate the Swiss startup ecosystem to provide the Venturelab community with food for thought, inspiration, and recommendations. For this year’s Summer Series, we’ll be interviewing personnel from the country’s leading higher education institutions about the diverse and unique programs available to support rising entrepreneurs across Switzerland. This week, we speak to Valeria Mozzetti Rohrseitz of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer at UNIFR.

Yam: Dr. Valeria Mozzetti Rohrseitz
Job title: Head of Knowledge and Technology Transfer
City: friborg
What I do: I assist researchers in their collaborations with industrial partners, in protecting new technologies with intellectual property, and in taking their first steps toward entrepreneurship.

How would you summarize the mission of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer?
Around 2,500 students and researchers leave the University of Fribourg each year and find new areas of application for the intellectual skills they have developed here. A large part of these intellectual skills remains stored in the minds and are “tacitly” passed on from the university to industry. The Knowledge and Technology Transfer service is attached to and supported by the Vice-Rectorate for Research and Innovation of the University: Prof. Katharina Fromm.

The university also transfers intellectual property to the industry in the form of innovation, such as ideas, prototypes, or concepts to bring a novel technology offering to market. Research can therefore be of concrete benefit, a truly attractive, horizon-expanding, and, not least, lucrative prospect for young researchers and students. We support researchers wishing to go in this direction.

What are the main programs/resources offered by the Knowledge and Technology Transfer?
We help negotiate the terms of the collaborations, support the process of protecting intellectual property, and help find non-dilutive funding. We regularly offer training activities for our researchers.

Who are the people behind the Knowledge and Technology Transfer? What makes you all excited about supporting entrepreneurs?
The people working in the KTT are former start-up founders and people with experience in setting up partnerships within the industry. The team comprises five members: I have experience as a start-up co-founder, a Ph.D. from ETH, and a Diploma in Technology Entrepreneurship from the Executive School of the University of St. Gallen; Ms. E. Aebischer, a senior KTT Manager with a chemistry background and 20 years of experience in the industry; Ms. M. Siciliano, a KTT manager with a background in neurosciences and experience as a project manager; and Ms. C. Schelker, who provides legal support in collaboration with the Engineering School of Friborg. We all have experience in setting up applied research projects—I am an expert for Innosuisse and Ms. Aebischer has experience with setting up joint ventures between companies.

How can startup founders best benefit from the support of the Knowledge and Technology Transfer?
Being a university, we mainly support prospective founders. Thus, we have a responsibility to help them navigate the options for transitioning into the Industry. In the beginning, it can be very daunting, as there are many options whose value can only be realized after tremendous efforts. We want to make sure that the knowledge and technology are used in the best way possible.

Could you please share two or three success stories from UNIFR that you are especially proud of?
We have a few startup projects at the University of Friborg that are really exciting. Two that I know very well—because I was directly involved in the negotiations—are Nanolockin and Neuria. Both companies are taking the first steps toward successfully commercializing their respective technologies. What I am most proud of is that we could standardize the licensing processes for our startups, making them faster and more transparent. I think transparency is key when dealing with startups. The new entrepreneurs need support and a university they can trust.

What are the key strengths of UNIFR that make it a great place for entrepreneurs?
UNIFR is a small university, this makes it more adaptable to the different situations encountered by entrepreneurs. We are setting up a clear transparent system of support for our researchers who wish to become entrepreneurs. For example, the rectorate of UNIFR has adopted the last year’s guidelines for licensing our startups and we are in the process of updating and publishing new directives and support material for the entrepreneurs. Additionally, we have great support for company creation via FriUP, the cantonal agency of Friborg

Which fields of technology are the startups from UNIFR especially strong in?
The UNIFR covers a very wide spectrum of disciplines, technical and not. It is well known for topics that are not often related to technology transfer like theology and humanities. Still, it has a lively and well-known institute specializing in soft nanotechnologies, the Adolphe Merkle Institute, and an active faculty of science and medicine, which are the main clients of our services. In the last few years, we have had three spin-offs: Nanolockin, which has developed a new technology to detect nanoparticles; Neuria, which has developed digital therapeutics to improve behavior; and Impossible Materials, which is developing new material based on cellulose. Impossible Materials just won the prestigious DeVigier award. Also, we have interesting projects in the pipeline from chemistry, nanotechnology, biology, and medicine: a gas separation device, fertilizers, rapid tests for antibiotic resistance detection in bacteria, and diagnostic tests for cancer. In the future, we expect to have more and more output from interdisciplinary projects. The software produced by Neuria is the first example: it is a product of the Laboratory for Neurorehabilitation Science from the faculty of medicine, which has an interdisciplinary team of physicians, psychologists, and engineers working at the intersection between fundamental and clinical neurorehabilitation sciences.

Can you share a surprising moment observed during your work at the Knowledge and Technology Transfer and what you learned from it?
What is very interesting is that experts in a certain field, maybe at a global level, still have the humility to learn the basics of entrepreneurship and bring their whole selves. I don’t take this for granted and it is absolutely necessary for having any chance of success. Too much self-confidence leads to an inability to adapt, while too little often leads to never finding a product-market fit.

Which book would you recommend as a must-read for any aspiring entrepreneur?
Usually, we have startup entrepreneurs coming to our Knowledge and Technology Transfer Service. They have a scientific background so my advice would be to look for any general management book and start skimming through them. This can give an idea of ​​what it takes to manage a team and build a company. Some skills are not immediately necessary but need to be on the radar.

I am currently reading Build by Tony Fadell and I like the direct style. However, I would suggest the budding entrepreneur not stay in her corner of her and only read books, I would suggest going out and following an entrepreneurship class. Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, offers entrepreneurship classes in different Swiss cities. We have a class every autumn in Fribourg.

What is a piece of key advice that you’d like to share with every new founder?
There are actually three key messages I try to convey to every aspiring entrepreneur. The first is to clearly identify your motivation, the second is the boundary conditions for stopping the entrepreneurship journey, and the third is that collaborations and team building are key. This is because the motivation for embarking on the entrepreneurship journey should be clear and will be the guiding principle to follow when making decisions about the company: team, funding, market, and management of the company will all depend on that. Another important point that is often left out is that few start-ups really take off. For this reason, the boundary conditions for continuing or stopping the entrepreneurship journey should be clear. In other words, the entrepreneur should think about different scenarios for the company’s growth but also different scenarios when the entrepreneurship journey should end. Finally, it is important to assemble a good team and start collaborating with possible partners from the start of the project. Collaborations are a key method to finding team members, exploring the market, and enlarging the capabilities of the start-up. At the UNIFR we have several projects at the pre-startup level that are scaling up to a pilot plant level thanks to collaborations with the HEIA-FR and funds from Innosuisse.

Finally, what is your vision/prediction for the startup community in Switzerland?
I have been a startup co-founder more than 10 years ago and since then I have observed the community, the support programs, and the financing possibilities in Switzerland grow exponentially. The support from the Swiss government is becoming more and more flexible and we are approaching a level that is almost comparable to one of some of our European neighbors that have a much more hands-on approach. However, there are great disparities among cantons and universities in regard to the support and financing available. Small Swiss universities are struggling to keep up with the support of big players like the ETHs. However, we are well informed and we exchange regularly with our peers. At UNIFR we try to optimize our support by teaming up with other services within the university. For example, we collaborate with our research promotion. We also operate with a start-up mindset in order to flexibly support our researchers.

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Excitement is only apart from start-up life. There’s plenty of it, but it is never the key success factor. Linger on the idea. If it still itches months after and there is still nothing comparable, you might be onto something.
 

Available support for UNIFR spin-offs:
The Knowledge and Technology Transfer Service
FriUp by the Canton of Friborg
venture kick
Innosuisse Start-up Trainings

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