Headof Innovation at CREB UPC and XarTEC SALUT
"Our main objectives are to develop a technologies map of the members of XarTEC SALUT and to find the most effective ways to support them."
The Research Centre for Biomedical Engineering (CREB) at the UPC, an institution affiliated with the Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu (IRSJD), received top funding in 2020 from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), under the management of the Government of Catalonia, to create and coordinate XarTEC SALUT, Catalonia's first health technologies innovation and valorisation network.
In late 2022, CREB UPC received the good news from the University and Research Grants Management Agency (AGAUR) that the funding for the XarTEC SALUT network would be renewed for another three years. We spoke with Manel González-Piñero, Head of Innovation at CREB UPC and XarTEC SALUT, to learn more about the plans for the network.
First of all, congratulations to the whole team of XarTEC SALUT! How will you be approaching this renewed funding for the next three years?
We're entering a new phase now and we plan to successfully tackle three new challenges. Firstly, we want to expand beyond our territory and internationalize the network. We're aware that similar initiatives exist in Europe and we'd like to establish connections with them to create strategic alliances. We're keen to learn from countries that are leaders in specific areas, such as Denmark in telemedicine and Finland in health games. Our goal is to create new opportunities for the members of XarTEC SALUT through co-creation and collaboration on international projects.
Secondly, we want to expand the network to 81 members. It's crucial to connect groups that are developing technologies in the health field because we believe they have a lot to contribute. We want to promote the creation of consortia and multicentre projects by collaborating with hospitals, universities and technology centres.
Thirdly, we want to strengthen our venture builder, which has provided us with excellent results in less than two years. We aim to grow nationally and to create a culture of collaboration, leading to national projects that can compete internationally.
Could you explain to us where the idea for the network came from?
At CREB UPC, we had a unique ability to value technologies and to create spin-offs, launching one almost every year. Actually, we already functioned as a small network with good coordination among thirteen groups. We have a shared space where we provide tools supporting the development and growth of spin-offs, in contact at all times with all the key players of the system, including investors, students, companies and hospitals. CREB UPC offers a favourable environment for their growth. Since this model worked so well for us, when the European funding opportunity arose we decided to scale it to the Catalan ecosystem, creating a network in the health technologies field.
Did CREB collaborate with other Catalan centres and institutions before the XarTEC SALUT network was created?
Yes, we've been working with a triple or quadruple helix model at CREB for years, and we've collaborated on projects with almost all the reference hospitals in the Barcelona area, such as Hospital de Sant Pau, where we advised on the selection of biomedical technologies for their new hospital facility. Since 2015, we've been part of the Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu, working on projects with medical professionals in the maternal-child and mental health fields. We also maintain relations with large companies, SMEs and start-ups, and we prioritize direct contact with end users and patients who benefit from the technologies we develop.
How did the development and structuring of XarTEC SALUT begin?
We started out by working on the project for three months to establish a few basic aspects. First, the network had to be transversal, covering all health technologies, from serious games to robotics, telemedicine and data analysis. Second, we had to function as nodes, allowing research groups of different institutions to work together in a coordinated way, and with the network providing complementary and supportive services to the established structures. We didn't want to compete with existing teams but sought to offer new services and knowledge. Third, TIC Salut supported the creation of a strong multicentre and transversal territorial network. And lastly, we aimed for a balance in the network in terms of entity typology and territorial representation.
How has XarTEC SALUT progressed since its establishment?
We began by setting up a venture builder-like structure to evaluate existing technologies and their TRL, to facilitate team creation and to foster the generation of spin-offs and start-ups. Unlike other programmes, we offer customized support and funding for each project, including assistance in areas such as intellectual property, business plans and technology patentability.
In addition, we have identified various research groups from different institutions in the region that specialize in developing innovative technologies for the healthcare sector. By complementing their transfer units with our network's services, we have been able to enhance their capabilities.
How does XarTEC SALUT's venture builder provide support to its members?
Our venture builder can offer support throughout the entire transfer process or at specific stages, as needed. For instance, we assist with the validation of our members' developed technology, helping to explore its potential impact and viability. This ensures that entrepreneurs can embark on their venture with maximum security.
Once they are ready to create their spin-off or start-up, we provide them with tools to form a team capable of building a robust strategy for optimal market penetration.
What challenges does the ecosystem of innovators and entrepreneurs face in Catalonia?
One of the primary challenges faced by researchers who wish to start a business is to find a team with the necessary skills to manage and grow the technology they have developed. Even if they have an exciting research project, they may lack the knowledge or tools to bring it to fruition. To address this challenge, XarTEC SALUT provides training and support to founders and entrepreneurs.
Another challenge is the retaining of talent. To tackle this, we have established a programme targeted at doctoral students, which gives them the chance to practice and implement the knowledge they have acquired through their theses. Significant investment is required, however, to create an environment that fosters entrepreneurship and provides suitable resources for these highly trained and qualified individuals, and this opens up a third pathway for them - the entrepreneurial line.
What will the new stage that is just getting underway come to offer?
We plan to expand and grow the network with new stakeholders, such as health technology research groups from large hospitals that still have not joined in, or unique institutions such as the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre. Above all, however, we will support all the research groups in the network that are working on the development of new technologies for application in the health field.
Over the past two years, we have supported some 14 projects, including Vincer.AI, Virmedex, Exheus and Xatkit, among others.