Interview with professor Olli Peltoniemi, Department of Production Animal Medicine, vice-dean for research, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

What kind of research do you do?

“Looking at the last 10-15 years, our group’s main focus has been on mammal parturition (birth) and the physiology related to it. We are looking at the biology of fertilization and embryo development and all that follows, the birth and early lactation”, professor Olli Peltoniemi, vice-dean of the faculty, explains over morning coffee in the Viikki EE-building restaurant.

Most of the team’s projects are about pigs. “They are just so interesting and dynamic from the point of view of reproduction physiology”, Peltoniemi smiles.  And indeed, so they are. Among mammals, pigs reproduce efficiently. They have a high rate of success in many ways: they bear a high number of piglets in a litter that usually survive well. However, with purposeful breeding also problems have arisen. As many as 30% of the embryos are now lost in the uterus. During parturition, losing one fetus during the process of birth and one over the next few days is typical. “Our team looks at the reasons for these losses. We also aim to influence the immunology of the newly born piglets.”

”Our business partners have hard expertise and vision.” 

How is industry involved in your work?

Meat production companies, pharmaceutical industry, and veterinary clinics are interested in the findings of professor Peltoniemi’s group of twenty researchers. ”We always approach companies with a purely science-based idea. Companies can comment and help with the formulation of the questions. They have been interested and some have funded us on a continuous basis. What happens is that a partnership, a trust gets formed quite naturally. This work is done on a person to person – basis”, Peltoniemi says.

Olli Peltoniemi does not need to think long about the impact his work has had on the industry: “We’ve been able to provide improvements that have had a surprisingly strong influence. We formulated a simple indicator, the duration of the birth from the first fetus to the last, and identified factors that affected it. Claudio Oliviero did his PhD thesis on this with Suomen Rehu (now part of Hankkija) and his work is still highly cited.” The secret behind the popularity of the team’s results is that the measurement systems they develop are easily repeated.

Peltoniemi’s group meets companies regularly in events and meetings. This keeps applicability on the table. ”Being able to apply our findings is a strong motivator for our group. It brings impact. We usually find a joint intention for a project through an iterative process with the company but of course there are situations where we have to agree to disagree and move on without the company”, Peltoniemi describes.

“Being able to apply our findings in real-life problems is a strong motivator for our group.”

How has your research or group benefited from working with companies? Have you faced challenges?

Peltoniemi has always held his business partners in high esteem. “They have hard expertise and valuable vision that we need”, he says. Companies have also supported the group’s PhD students by financing parts of the work while other parts have been funded by public funding sources, national as well as international. “It is also quite typical in our field that companies recruit our PhD students once the thesis is ready”, Peltoniemi points out.

Sometimes a company may have supported important infrastructure and participated in building experimental setups. One important benefit is data: ”Companies have provided us with data about drugs: what kind of drugs are used and how much. A related issue is antimicrobial resistance. Companies feel that this is mutually important and join our projects with their data.”

There were challenges with some companies in the beginning. If they were new to research collaboration, they did not always understand how research works or what they could reasonably expect from it. “There were some disappointments about schedules”, Peltoniemi remembers. ”Research is so long-term and it takes so much time to analyze material…sometimes we need to repeat some tests over again. But when you’ve built the trust, everybody knows the name of the game and there is mutual understanding how things work.” Peltoniemi continues that there are more and more experts in companies who are at the forefront of the field and also read scientific articles.

Peltoniemi’s group has never had to refrain from publishing anything they wanted, but sometimes it has taken some discussion. “Our results are not always positive for the companies and they don’t necessarily like the idea that we will publish them. But we have made clear that publishing is a prerequisite for collaboration”, the professor emphasizes.

“A post-doc period in an international company is a good choice!” 

What advice would you give a researcher considering business collaboration?

“It’s vital to keep a clear focus in your own research and not to expand where you do not want to go. Companies have all kinds of ideas and interests but you have to be honest and tell them where your limits are.” This is where the partnership and trust comes in. When there is respect and trust, it is easy to outline the conditions for collaboration. “You can be clear and say that our group cannot serve as your company’s R & D department and that unfortunately we see no scientific interest in your idea. And the other way around: if the company doesn’t see any benefit for themselves in our idea, that’s fine also”, Peltoniemi concludes.

Peltoniemi also has a tip for new PhDs considering a post-doc period abroad. ”A post-doc period within an international company is a good choice. Just like abroad, you get a fresh, external view on things. We’ve had a number of people work in a company for two or three years and then come back, stronger than ever!”

Peltoniemi continues: “I also always try to point out to my students the possibility to apply for the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation (EBVS). It consists of 27 colleges that produce internationally recognized veterinary specialists – on the same EQF (European Qualifications Framework) level as a PhD thesis (8). It is a great way to build a network of colleagues and to build a reputation with companies that fund parts of the programme.”

Do you see untapped potential for business collaboration in your faculty?

“I certainly do. We’ve had all kinds of projects and initiatives coming and going but there is much more potential in our faculty than we’ve utilized. Also companies are now more interested in investing in research – after a really long dry period. We should take advantage of the momentum!”

Peltoniemi points out the OneHealth PROFI research profiling project called “1HEALTH”. An idea there is to increase the level of digitalization in health data that other researchers, not just veterinary scientists, could use it. “I trust and hope that we will be able to start new, large-scale EU initiatives on this through H2020 and other such funding programs”, Peltoniemi says. ”Small-animal internal diseases are a growing field. We could model epidemics of respiratory diseases across species borders and look at the behaviour of the pathogen on a population level. Anti-microbial resistance is another important field as well as the transfer of viruses from one species to another”, he summarizes.

Finally: together with Hannes Lohi, professor Peltoniemi shares a passion for founding new companies and investing in promising start-ups. We finish our coffees and end our interview talking about Hannes Lohi’s idea of a mentoring network within the faculty. “I for one volunteer to be a mentor in it as well to help commercialize the work of young graduates that wish to base their business on science!”