Last week, our director, Martin Kern introduced the EIT’s flagship event series INNOVEIT Weeks, which showcases the EIT Community's diverse range of activities. In the past decade, the EIT has built Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem that tackles some of the most pressing problems facing our planet, our societies and us as individuals.
These challenges and the work of our pan-European network are covered at 10 events across the continent starting with INNOVEIT Stockholm on 15 September. The event is dedicated to the topic “Innovation in Higher Education: A Vision for the Future” and the EIT's Higher Education Initiative (HEI). The HEI initiative aims to support higher education institutions with expertise and coaching, access to the EIT innovation ecosystem, and funding, enabling them to develop innovation action plans complementing the needs of individual higher education institutions.
The keynote speaker at INNOVEIT Stockholm is going to be Dr Riam Kanso, founder and CEO of the venture programme, Conception X. We sat down with Riam to find out more about the work she does and what she thinks about some of the themes of the event. Let’s see what she has to say!
EIT: You are the founder and CEO of Conception X. How would you explain what you do to an industry outsider?
Riam Kanso: Conception X is a venture programme and a platform that helps PhD students launch deep technology start-ups based on their PhD research. We define deep technology as a technology that’s based on meaningful scientific discovery with some level of R&D risk. So, things that are off the shelf are not deep technology, and things that take some time to develop in the lab, whether it’s quantum applications or new materials, that would count as deep tech.
"In 4 years now, 250 PhD teams have gone through Conception X, and of those around 40% have built start-ups."
In Conception X, we have a novel approach in that we take PhD students whilst they’re still in their degree, and we help them launch these companies without them stopping or pausing their studies. So, they work with their colleagues in the labs, and they have to turn what they’re researching into a product or service that will become a start-up.
Conception X initially launched in University College London as a pilot in 2018, but then we spun it out as an independent, not for profit. We have been running for 4 years now, 250 PhD teams have gone through Conception X, and of those around 40% have built start-ups. The nice thing is that those who haven’t built start-ups have gone back to the lab with more skills in commercialisation and gotten more access to grants or joined other jobs that they wouldn’t have otherwise as academics.
I think it’s wonderful to see how people are working with the universities to launch these companies that have a tremendous impact on the world.
EIT: You work in the university ecosystem. How do you see higher education institutions in the European Union? How prepared are they to support PhD students in bringing their innovations to market?
Riam Kanso: The first thing to say about the higher education landscape across Europe and the EU is that you have some of the best R&D in the world, the potential that’s latent inside the universities is massive. The role of universities is slowly evolving and changing as an ecosystem to spread knowledge and solve global problems. So, whilst there are still some hurdles and difficulties in spinning out research across some universities, I think overall there is some progress in making sure that the research that the EU has invested in actually become impactful products and services.
"In Conception X, 37% of our founders are female... I think this is because we are putting incentives, conditions and facilities in place that would encourage more women to apply."
EIT: Women are underrepresented in the STEM fields. Is this changing?
Riam Kanso: I see this changing quite a lot, and I think it’s important to look at how things are talked about, how they’re mentioned, what language is used and the opportunities that are present. In Conception X, 37% of our founders are female, this is higher than the industry average in deep tech, and this is not because we pre-select for gender, which some institutions do, I think this is because we are putting incentives, conditions and facilities in place that would encourage more women to apply. The fact that we have moved this entrepreneurial journey a bit earlier, during the PhD means that more female PhD students in tech can try to build a start-up.
Women are statistically shown to be a bit more risk averse. If a female were finishing their PhD and had the chance to take a post-doc or start a company, and there is a young family involved, I think more women would just go towards the safer option. Now that we’re changing the language around that and making the opportunity to start a company more of an educational thing during the PhD, I think we’re going to see the numbers slowly start to rise.
It’s a work in progress, and I think that change needs to be reflected at the investment level as well, not just at the educational level.
EIT: What are the hottest trends in deep tech today?
Riam Kanso: With deep technology start-ups, the thing to keep in mind is that the building and the exiting of a start-up takes a long time, and there is a large period of R&D at the beginning that slowly turns into a product. Everything has a higher risk, but once the start-up is created, the societal impact on the world is massive. Currently, we’re seeing start-ups that are tackling the climate crisis as hot topics, and particularly things like resilience in agriculture.
"I think the thing to keep in mind is that all these things are built so that they tackle pressing problems, and those are the health of our planet and the health of us as individuals."
Likewise with energy generation, in the UK, there is a nuclear fusion start-up that raised the highest investment round recently. So, we’re seeing more energy generation start-ups.
In terms of particular technologies, we have new materials that are being produced, microcircuits, new applications of quantum technology, space technology etc.
But I think the thing to keep in mind is that all these things are built so that they tackle pressing problems, and those are the health of our planet and the health of us as individuals as well.
EIT: What is the craziest project Conception X has taken on?
Riam Kanso: First of all, we don’t call them crazy. They’re all our cohorts, and I think the more wonderful things they’re working on, the better. The nice thing about Conception X is that we take risky projects that wouldn’t necessarily have a place in a more classical incubator-type thing that makes you do something in three months.
A few examples come to mind in this newest, fifth cohort: we have a UCL PhD student working on new architectural materials of the future. These are photosynthetic, engineered living materials that are going to be the building blocks of new buildings. The point is that it’s kind of crazy to think about it now, but in the future, the buildings themselves will be living organisms, so that they’re carbon neutral and contribute to the safety of the environment as well. So that’s kind of science-fictiony and very-very beautiful.
Last year, we had a student actually from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich building the HuggieBot. That is a robot that has very advanced haptics that hugs like a human being, and the applications are widespread in terms of the mental health crisis which is also affecting us as a population. I think it’s very interesting and kind of removes the whole stigma about what robots can do, and how they’re going to take over the world.
Our first exit now is a quantum drug discovery company, so using quantum machine learning to discover new drugs. I think this is probably going to cause a revolution in how new materials are produced in the future.
And there are many examples. All the students are working on great things. So, we like all our PhDs and what they are working on, and I think in the future we are going to get more and more interesting and crazy things.
"It will be nice to mingle and mix with people who are interested in this kind of innovation landscape across the higher education ecosystem."
EIT: What are you looking forward to during the INNOVEIT Stockholm event?
Riam Kanso: I’m looking forward to coming to Stockholm, which I have never seen before, but I think aside from that, it looks like it’s going to be a very interesting conference. I already have a few meetings lined up, and in general after spending 2 or 3 years in the pandemic, it will be nice to mingle and mix with people who are interested in this kind of innovation landscape across the higher education ecosystem. So, I think it’s going to be great.
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