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Iwan de Esch on his position as Director of Valorisation

1 September 2022
Iwan de Esch has been Director of Valorisation of the Faculty of Science since 1 June. Valorisation is an important subject within VU Amsterdam. As professor in the Division of Medicinal Chemistry of the Department of Chemistry & Pharmaceutical Sciences and also co-founder of three spin-off companies, de Esch can boast much relevant and valuable experience. An interview about the opportunities and responsibilities of his new position.

How do you see knowledge transfer?

“Knowledge transfer has lots of consequences, some of which have to do with money and social impact, but those are secondary as far as I’m concerned. First and foremost, knowledge transfer needs to align with the university’s primary processes. This means that it must always have a positive effect on research and education. But when those three aspects come together, knowledge transfer becomes a sustainable practice that is of maximum benefit to the university.”

“I was able to observe this, for example, at the University of Cambridge, where I have also done academic research and co-founded a spin-off company. The University of Cambridge focuses with great conviction on valorisation to create research capacity and research jobs in the vicinity of the university. Subsequently, the collaboration between the spin-offs and the university is stimulated. Everyone benefits from that.”

How do you see your job as director of knowledge transfer?

“The Faculty of Science has adopted a very active knowledge transfer process. My predecessor, Davide Iannuzzi, made really great strides in this regard, particularly in terms of support for researchers and creating a safe environment.”

What do you mean by a safe environment?

“Our academic duties will always vie for time with our knowledge transfer tasks. So if we have to work in an environment that’s not safe or, rather, where things are unclear, there can be problems. Academic independence could be at risk, for instance in situations where people might appear to have multiple  interests. We need a very clear framework for these kinds of things.

What would such a framework look like?

“You could make agreements that are very explicit and transparent, and you’d need to clearly define the rules that govern the relationship between researchers and the faculty, especially by facilitating the discussion about them. But most importantly, you’d have to facilitate a discussion about these rules and agreements. That would ensure a good balance between knowledge transfer activities and academic work.”

What are the priority areas for knowledge transfer moving forward?

“The support of innovation processes can be further improved. In the short few weeks since starting my job here at the university, I’ve already observed that knowledge transfer comes in many different forms. I think knowledge transfer can be very broad, and that it can also focus on social problems, or involve participating in wider-ranging discussions on various levels. I think we still have plenty to learn in this area, and perhaps the hard sciences could pay more attention to these other forms of knowledge transfer. Because as scientists we tend to focus on things like patenting inventions and creating spin-out companies. And these are things I really enjoy and hope to contribute to. But knowledge transfer is broader than that, and we need to find ways to support other forms as well.”