Interview with Claudio Oliviero, Adjunct Professor, Production Animal Medicine, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

”In this work, I always appreciated the possibility not only to satisfy my scientific interest but also to make a wider difference”, begins Claudio Oliviero in a meeting room in the Viikki animal hospital. Focused on the physiology of sow (female pig), Dr Oliviero’s research looks at the factors influencing successful birth and the survival of the newly born piglets. “Our work is important for the health and welfare of the animals and for the ensuing production. Today sows are having more piglets than in the past. If the piglets do better and grow well and require less treatment with, for instance, antibiotics, there are economic benefits for the production companies and health benefits for the consumer”, Oliviero explains.

Dr Oliviero’s group is involved in several PhD projects and research projects, many of which are funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and private companies in the fields of animal feed, meat, and drugs. Not all company input is in the form of significant funding: sometimes they offer technical support for an instrument or a product for testing.

Oliviero’s work has contributed to policy as well. More than ten years of research on parturition of pigs has led to bigger awareness and possibly in the near future to a change in legislation: researchers have proved that sows require a particular environment to help in parturition. “When I tell people what I do, they think – a pig. Why? But really, it’s not only about pigs, it’s about affecting the everyday life of people through animal health and food production.”

Companies can be open to things one might not expect.

Why do you work with companies?

“Having an impact helps a lot in funding applications but it also increases my personal satisfaction. I like to go further in my thinking and stimulate myself with new ideas. I’ve never been afraid to ask companies to join my projects. They are usually open to different types of collaboration – it’s up to you to decide where you want to go”, Oliviero says. Companies can be open to things one might not expect, and on the other hand, they sometimes say that the researcher’s idea is not a match with their core business and they have to decline.

Modern funding instruments also push researchers to think more about societal impact. “Yes, we have also been guided by funding instruments. You have to do this nowadays. We also see that in this new university field, we need industry involved or we will struggle.”

Applied clinical research requires access to production farms. This is one important reason to work with companies. “If I go to the farms as a veterinarian and ask to take blood samples of their sows, I’m going to get a “no”. But if Hankkija decides to support our project, they can open the doors to their farms for us.” Companies also co-design the projects by offering their complementary knowledge about, for instance, the feeding process on farms. That way the researchers can make their research plan compatible with real-life conditions.

“Researchers should open their eyes because you don’t know exactly what the industry can offer. You can always ask and decide whether you accept what they might be able to offer. Same for the company, they can decide to accept or not. “

How did you get started?

“Just before finishing my PhD, I had two years of experience in pharmaceutical industry. That was the best thing I could have done to understand how business works. As a researcher, you only see the outside of business, not the inside. Working there helped me understand. Of course industry has their own interests but so do you. You need to be smart about it and be very clear at the outset of what you need and want and what they need and want.”

Finding partners often happens as a snowball effect. You start with a small project and it grows. “Recent example: I was running a ministry-funded project. A few months in, we found that one big company could have an interest to be involved more: they wanted to test some products. After negotiations, they gave us access to four big farms to do the testing in and funded part of the project by 70 000 €. Finally, a Dutch partner company of theirs also got very interested and we did another trial on a Dutch farm. We compared an open farrowing pen and a classical farrowing crate, something we wouldn’t be able to do easily here in Finland.”

Cross-disciplinarity has huge potential in our faculty.

How to work successfully with companies?

Through his work as a veterinarian, Dr Oliviero knows the farms, feeding companies, medical companies, and slaughter houses. He knows the people and they know him. Long collaboration has built trust. “Trust is fundamental. You cannot make a deal with someone you don’t trust. With trust, you know that people will fulfil the deal“, Oliviero explains. Researchers must be in contact with stakeholders of their research field, nowadays it’s not possible to conduct research hiding in your office room.

Oliviero has never had problems with publishing the results of his studies, not even if they are negative for the company. Putting forward a research plan that is academically interesting but also close to the company’s core business has given him free hands. The idea is to include something in the project that can be useful for the company. If the company sees that the project can lead to something good for them, they are usually willing to fund it.

“We usually go with the team. Our group works a lot as a team, we have different interests that we combine in the project. This strengthens funding applications and also negotiations with companies. It’s also psychologically a good message to go with a team, it strengthens your standpoint.”

Collaboration often leads to careers for the participating PhD students. This opens up new possibilities for research collaboration since the company employs people intimately in the know of what goes on in their original research group.

Do you think your faculty has untapped potential for business collaboration?

Oliviero thinks that cross-disciplinarity has huge potential in the faculty. The PROFI initiative OneHealth is a good platform for this because it includes topics that are important for human health, animal health, and the environment. For instance, decreasing antibiotics in animal care has immediate effects on human health and the environment.

“The big problem is that we don’t know enough what is happening in our faculty. I wish we could join our interests and resources, then we would have more success both in funding applications and in business collaboration. For instance, I would like to know more about what is being done in food hygiene, and I’m sure they don’t know all that I do. Even more important would be to discuss together about what we are each planningto do. Joining forces would get us better business collaboration deals. “

What would you tell colleagues thinking about business collaboration?

“Do it! You never know what possibilities are behind the door. I’ve never had any problems hearing ”no” from a company – so what! Ask the next person. You might get some yes’s. Don’t be afraid but be very clear about what you really need and want, and what they really need and want. That’s your recipe for success.”

The Business Collaboration Team offered all faculties an opportunity to pilot a new service,”The Business Collaboration Accelerator”. The Faculty of Medicine is our first pilot case. In this blog series, we interview 15 veterinarians about their experiences with industry.