For four years now, KU Leuven has held the title of Europe’s most innovative university. The university emphasizes publishing, patenting, and marketing its research innovations so they can impact the world. A key player in supporting the launch of new technologies is the university’s Industrial Research Fund (IOF), a unique Flemish funding scheme that bridges basic research, technological innovation, and industry collaboration. At KU Leuven, the IOF allows consortia of research groups to hire a business developer (called an IOF manager) to valorize their research. KU Leuven’s team of over 40 IOF managers helps the university maintain its innovative edge and to turn excellent research into practical solutions.
The IOF team helps connect academics with industry partners so that their research can be used to solve real life problems. They also facilitate collaboration between companies interested in accessing the university’s expertise and relevant research groups. “As IOF managers we coordinate all the steps from finding funding for research to the real valorization of it,” explains Bart De Ketelaere, who works on agrifood 4.0 and is part of the MeBioS (Mechatronics, Biostatistics and Sensors) research group. Working frequently with industrial partners allows Bart to spot gaps in the market that KU Leuven researchers could fill. “Sometimes in working with industry, we see problems come up frequently which have no solution. What I try to do is capture what the industry is looking for that they cannot find through commercial players and try to translate that into solutions we can develop here at the university,” he says.
Most IOF managers have PhDs in their field, but the paths they take to the position differ. Veronique Daniëls, for example, did a postdoc in industry and then worked for a contract research organization as a study director before becoming an IOF manager. She felt that her learning had plateaued in contract research and she wanted a job that would allow her to break out of the routine. “I'm quite a creative person. I like looking for new solutions and tackling new challenges,” says Veronique. “The opportunity to do that was rather limited in contract research so I started looking for a job that would give me more satisfaction in these areas. Now at the IOF I have a lot of freedom in terms of planning my work, engaging in new projects, connecting with people. So essentially, for me, the sky's the limit.” Veronique enjoys that her IOF mandate is quite broad so every day is different and she has plenty of opportunities to continue learning.
Bart, by contrast, started working at the IOF as a postdoc. After a few years of fundamental research in his PhD lab, he realized that industrial research attracted him more. “I wanted to use the knowledge we had in our lab and neighbouring labs to really solve problems in industry. That's how I came to the IOF,” he says. The lab he works in specializes in making new sensor technology and managing the data that the sensors produce. In 2013, he helped the lab co-found a spin-off company, Porphyrio, a leading provider of cloud based intelligent data management software for the poultry meat and commercial egg industry. “KU Leuven has been incredibly successful when it comes to founding spin-off companies,” says Bart. “This success is due to the university’s unique ecosystem that combines top-rated researchers with the strong expertise of LRD, the KU Leuven Technology Transfer Office. The IOF adds an important layer to this by making it possible for successful research groups to hire experienced managers that focus on research valorization.”
Veronique’s success at the IOF lies in the field of neuroscience and bringing promising life science technologies to market. She works on drug discovery for Parkinson’s disease as part of the Baekelandt Lab and contributes to the development of new research tools that will allow researchers to find new therapies that could alter the course of the disease. “We are specialized in developing animal models with viral vector technology. I also manage Leuven Viral Vector Core where we design, validate, and produce customized viral vectors on request,” she explains. Additionally, Veronique supports Molecular Imaging Research and Clinic Leuven (MIRaCLe) which covers a bench to bedside approach for PET imaging. “By working with these different groups, I get to meet a lot of people and then I can bring them into contact with each other, which leads to new ideas and successful projects being started. I see myself a facilitator,” she adds. Indeed, one of the goals of the IOF is to bring together expertise and create synergies in order to produce a unique value proposition that can then be successfully taken to the market.
Being an IOF manager is an exciting and challenging job at the crossroads of fundamental research, strategic research, and applied research. Veronique and Bart must continually innovate to develop new valorization projects that can have impact both in Belgium and internationally. Fortunately, they’re at KU Leuven, where innovation is second nature. “For me, it’s important that I can identify with the company or the institute I’m working for,” says Veronique. “KU Leuven is known for its entrepreneurship and is one of the most innovative universities. I'm proud to work for KU Leuven.”
Veronique and Bart are just two of the IOF managers who bridge the gap between KU Leuven’s research and societal challenges. The scope of expertise at the IOF is incredibly large, covering everything from musical heritage to sustainable chemistry to computer security. You can meet the other IOF managers and learn more about their work here.