Interview with Outi Vainio, Professor of Veterinary Pharmacology
Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
“I study dogs but I’m actually a cat person” exclaims Outi Vainio in her office located at the small animal hospital in Viikki. “We have over 800 000 dogs in our homes in Finland and only now have we started to scientifically understand them. Dogs have become important members of our society and they have a very close bond with humans. During our convergent evolution, dogs have evolved to read humans and understand our signals. This is something that usually only primates can do and it makes dog behavior a very interesting topic for research. So even though I personally like cats, dogs are still amazing to study.”
What kind of experience do you have in business collaboration?
“The roots of my career go back to the pharmaceutical industry where I studied and developed new veterinary medicine drugs. This was many years ago but some of the sedative drugs I developed back then are still on the market today. As a result of this long career in the private sector, it is easy for me to work with businesses as I understand the business language as well as their way of thinking”, Outi explains.
After 15 years of working in the private sector, Outi moved to the university. Her line of work continued together with a post doc in the US with whom she collaborated closely. “We wanted to change the characteristics of a drug that I had previously developed. The drug was as a sedative with some undesirable cardiovascular effects which we wanted to alleviate. The company who owned the drug molecule agreed to provide us with the compounds for scientific purposes which helped us get started. Through our modifications, we found a new compound and were able to show a reduction of cardiovascular side effects. The rights to that compound were then sold to a Finnish pharmaceutical company who applied for two patents on the use of the molecule.” Outi is listed as an inventor on the patent and the drug is now being developed for clinical use.
“I also have experience in working with non-pharma firms in a Business Finland (BF) project called Turre. This project involves several companies and aims to develop new technologies and digital services for dogs such as activity meters and heartrate monitors. Next, we will test the ideas and technologies on patients and look at how these results can be commercialized.”
Why do you work with companies?
“It forms part of the input I provide to society and the field of veterinary medicine. It allows me to put my results to use in the real world. It is also a good way of engaging society with research.”
Outi finds it very motivating to see that companies take an interest and value her research. She continues: “It is an opportunity to create useful networks and get introduced to people working in the same field of research and innovation. Business collaboration always starts from having a personal contact and one company can help open the doors to meeting others.”
“By meeting one company, you usually get access to many others, as they all know each other.”
What benefits have you received from working with companies?
“One of the big benefits is funding for my projects. This is important for me because I cannot compete against basic research when it comes to traditional academic funding. The main academic funding sources do not fund my type of applied research. However, companies value what I do and are willing to provide the resources for my studies.”
How do you go about finding companies to collaborate with? How does it all start?
“I usually go to google! I search for companies in my field of interest, visit their websites and give them a call to find out if they are interested in my project. It is also a good idea to network and attend seminars. We actually organized a seminar of our own a few weeks ago as part of the Turre project. It was called Tech4Dogs. We utilized social media to get in touch with companies and market the event. It ended up being a big success! We had a full house and made many new company contacts. Social media is an important tool when wanting to make new connections with businesses.”
“Be proactive: organize your own networking event and invite interesting companies.”
What advice would you give to other researchers interested in business collaboration?
Outi emphasizes the importance of making contacts with companies. “You need to find the right person in the company who gets excited about your idea and can make the decision to take your proposal forward. Large businesses can be more difficult to work with as the decision-making process takes time and finding the right people to contact is not always easy. The bigger the company, the more important it is to find the right person”, Outi continues, “Smaller companies tend to be easier to talk to. You can usually directly contact the CEO and they are less bureaucratic. However, the downside is that they do not always have the funds available to support your project.”
“You need to find the right person in the company who gets excited about your idea and can make the decision to take your proposal forward. “
“You also need to have some sales skills, although I am not so good in that but I have been lucky!” Outi laughs. “Saying you have a good idea won’t take you far. Companies don’t usually like to take high risks so be prepared to convince the company with scientific evidence and know something about your competition.”
“Competition isn’t all negative”, Outi comments. “There are over 100 international companies working in the same field as our Turre project. This means that the field is extremely competitive but it also assures that there is a market need and business potential in this area. Competition is something you have to accept. It requires you to believe in your own idea to survive.”
“It’s important to set the rules in the very beginning to avoid any problems with publishing the results.”
According to Outi, it is also important to remember ethics of research. “You should not make any bold statements without supporting studies or overestimate/underestimate the results just because a company supports your project. I have never had an issue in this regard myself. In my experience, usually when companies work with scientists, they want the truth!”
Has your collaboration resulted in societal/economic impact?
“Yes, I believe so. We have developed new drugs which have helped vets in their work and improved the welfare of animals. Our work has also produced economic benefits for the companies as some of the drugs we developed in the 80s are still market leaders today.”
Do you think your faculty has untapped potential for business collaboration?
“I think there is a lot of potential to further our contacts with companies and build closer networks. All of my previous collaborations have been based on personal contacts. If the university can facilitate networks for researchers it could lead to increased collaboration. Also, company collaboration should support researchers’ careers. At present, it has no effect on the evaluation of your research. Researchers need more incentives from the academic world to put more resources and time into collaborating with businesses.”