Despite a number of setbacks in public funding as a result of Spain’s recession, the Spanish National Biotechnology Center (CNB) has continued to remain at the forefront of science and research. Carmen Castresana, director of CNB, highlights the key attributes of the Center and discusses its efforts to collaborate more with companies to produce innovation in Spain.
The recession in Spain has affected many industries, and research is no exception. As a publicly funded institute, what adaptations did CNB make in response to this recession?
We experienced a budget reduction of around 30 percent, and this required the reorganization of the Center. We had to decide where to allocate our funds, and part of this has resulted in no new purchases of equipment in the last two years. The Center has also reduced personnel in some of its general services while still trying to maintain the activity and the services we provide to the users of the institute. Much of our reduction has affected independent laboratories. The money we have obtained from grants to run the labs, as well as the number of projects and individuals in those labs has been strongly reduced. Generally, I think we have been able to survive, but today the situation in Spain is critical. We, as a country, have to react and restore the funding needed to keep developing our capacities and maintaining our international position.
Nevertheless, CNB is still one of the biggest institutes in the country and one of the few with its own technology transfer office. How has this advantage leveraged your international positioning?
This has been of immense help. Despite budget reduction as a result of the crisis, we have still succeeded in obtaining money from areas outside Spain like Brussels. CNB is actively involved with many European projects, which has been very helpful. With regard to our technology transfer department, we are pushing to contact companies and to narrow links between them. The money we obtain through companies is not stellar at the moment, but we are surviving thanks to projects in Brussels and other international funds like for example the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for developing HIV vaccines.
Because of Spain’s division among autonomous communities, it is difficult to assemble a cohesive national plan that allows for enhanced collaboration. What ways can greater collaboration between these regions could be facilitated?
This is hard for us to tell. CNB belongs to the Madrid community and therefore only receives funds from our local government, or Spain’s central authorities. This is a political arrangement that we cannot control. We have not received too much money from Madrid in recent years, which has resulted in reductions as well. The Ministry of Economy is trying to assemble different responsibilities for individual communities as a means of creating this collaboration. Because institutes can only deal with their local governments for funding, it is critical for these governments to get together by themselves to facilitate greater cooperation across regions.
Ultimately, the goal of this institution is to turn research into innovation. As Director, how do you foster an environment that breeds innovation?
In 2013, we dedicated much of our efforts in contacting new companies create new alliances and patents. While this process has been very slow (particularly for patents), we are progressing nonetheless. As a center for biotechnology, this is our responsibility. But it is difficult at the moment, and companies right now do not have much money to invest in research because of the crisis.
CNB also assists with entrepreneurship. As an example, one PhD student who developed method software to analyze proteomics data at CNB established his own company within these facilities last year as part of collaboration between his company and the Center. We would like to see more of this activity. The issue that arises is that Spanish Law restricts the participation of scientists who are public employees as entrepreneurs in the capital and earnings of their own private enterprise. However, we expect this to change in the future. From a cultural and traditional perspective, Spain as a country has not been too engaged with entrepreneurship. CNB has tried to help spinoffs and small companies with patent licensing, and also assists in bringing more companies to work within CNB.
Do Spanish people have the ability to sell themselves as well as their research?
There is a certain level of interest to be able to do this, and would be of great assistance to the country. But this process of selling is quite difficult as there has never been a defining method as to how to do it within the Spanish context. The process of becoming entrepreneurial was far easier in the years preceding the crisis because there was more capital floating around. Many people started small companies in those days, and many of them have not evolved because of this tough economic situation. Consequently, there are less companies being started unless they have something truly groundbreaking.
Spain has the sixth largest volume of biotech companies worldwide. What are the characteristics of this country’s environment that make it attractive to run biotech businesses?
Spain has very strong agricultural production in the south of the country, where there was an agricultural boom. In this sense, Spain attracts many European biotech companies that in turn develop and collaborate with small Spanish companies. The high quality science that exists in Spain helps to create that environment, and certainly the good funding that existed in the past also contributed. In fact, for many years, Spain was a great place to create startups in general and as such there was higher international visibility for science and research. But funds have also been cut for biotech companies in recent years, just like the research institutes. There also used to be money in every university campus nationwide; science parks and incubators were being created for small enterprises. We are still waiting for recovery phase to begin.
Last week, CNB received the Severo Ochoa accreditation, which will provide €1 million annually for four years in funding. Why were you chosen among the many top-quality institutes in Spain?
I think the level of science at this institute is of very high quality. Our strength in international collaborations is well perceived beyond our borders. CNB also always has excellent evaluations, and we are often cited for our capacity to research and publish results, as well as our phenomenal ability to obtain the support of international funding agencies. CNB is a great institute that was created with the idea that an institute in Spain dedicated to biotech was fundamental. The scientists that filled CNB over the years were hand-picked one by one. Individuals were selected through committees. It is a very competitive environment. I think we have also attracted a great deal of capital and consequently we have great visibility internationally.
If we came back to Spain for Horizon 2020, where would you like to see CNB by then?
I would like to keep doing what we are doing, but in a situation where we can achieve what we set as an objective. At the moment, the institute is in standby, but we will maintain our continuous rigor and our positioning will remain strong. We just need improve contact with companies and establish clear relationships with companies while having more projects funded by them. We need to apply our research to companies while remaining at the forefront of research in our areas of expertise. If we need to buy new equipment, we need to be able to do that. We need to be competitive in Europe. We need that to attract foreigners to come here, both temporary and permanent. We need more young people with enthusiasm for science, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
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