Markus Wanko, head of Technology Transfer, explains how the Vienna Region’s reputation is heightened by the fundamental research institute IST Austria, the technology park IST Park and the early stage investment fund IST cube.
Founded in 2009, the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) in Klosterneuburg is a PhD-granting research institute which focuses on fundamental research in natural sciences, mathematics and computer sciences. Not exactly a source of applicable practical ideas at first glance, so former venture capital investor Markus Wanko was brought on board. He founded the Technology Transfer Office and runs it with the aim of converting academic research into commercial products. Among its important vehicles are their early stage investment fund (IST cube) which focuses on the financing and development of spin-offs of Austrian academic institutions and technology start-ups, and their technology park (IST Park), a mutual company of IST Austria and ecoplus which adjoins the IST campus and offers offices and laboratory spaces for spin-off companies. Therefore, IST Austria provides not only financial means but also the scientific infrastructure.
Vienna Region: How do you transfer ideas into the industry?
Markus Wanko: In the development of marketable ideas, there are always two routes: via existing industry companies or via founding a spin-off. Partnering up with existing companies occurs more rarely in our case, because investments need to be profitable for them within a certain timeframe, and NIH (not invented here) poses a challenge sometimes. The truly innovative projects are often better handled in a new framework, so the commercialization of our content often occurs via founding a spin-off.
Vienna Region: How many projects have you invested in so far, and can you name an exemplary project?
Markus Wanko: IST cube made its first six investments in very different university-related and academic institutions. This is unique in Austria. Until now, there had been no fund with an academic background investing specifically in academic spin-off companies. For example, we founded “Ribbon Biolabs”, a biotech start-up focusing on synthesizing DNA molecules. It is an elaborate process to build long sequences, and we developed a technology which allows to efficiently build long DNA molecules.
Vienna Region: How did the Corona pandemic affect the research?
Markus Wanko: The shutdown caused short-term limitations in terms of laboratory work. The theoreticians didn’t have a problem because they were able to manage their home-office environments well. From the perspective of IST cube, the Corona crisis was indeed conducive. For example, one of our investments is “contextflow”, a Viennese image analysis start-up which supports radiologists with artificial intelligence and image searches in diagnostics. This start-up has reacted quickly and developed software to better diagnose Covid-19-affected lungs. We also invested in “Prewave”, a spin-off of TU Wien, which has developed supply chain prognostics software and is therefore able to offer a product in a time of massive supply chain disruption due to the pandemic. And “G.ST Antivirals”, a spin-off of Med Uni Wien, is boosted by the more prominent issue of virus infections. This start-up focuses on a molecule very similar to glucose which can be used antivirally because it can be given to infected cells which believe it to be glucose. But it doesn’t work like glucose and can therefore impede further replications of the virus.
Vienna Region: Are there joint projects with international research institutions?
Markus Wanko: Scientific cooperation occurs mostly on the level of individual research groups because the group leaders have to organize themselves. On the institutional level, we started a joint project called “Bridge Network” last year. As co-founders, we exchange information with similar institutes and share the central tasks of cutting-edge research and the training of PhD students. This network includes the most successful scientific institutions worldwide in the STEM disciplines, such as the Rockefeller University in New York, the Francis Crick Institute in London, the Weizmann Institute in Israel or the Okinawa Institute in Japan.
Vienna Region: So the institute is very much internationally oriented?
Markus Wanko: Yes, the vast majority is not from Austria. Last year, there were people from roughly 70 different nations on campus.
Vienna Region: What attracts international specialists to IST Austria?
Markus Wanko: It depends which cohorts you’re talking about. We have three major groups: doctoral students, postdocs and professors. The professors can be divided into juniors and seniors. The motivations are different. One of the most convincing arguments for PhD students is our unique graduate structure. The applicants do not need to specify a concrete PhD project because in their first year, they take classes in all kinds of disciplines. The focus is on multidisciplinarity from which the PhD projects are then developed. For post-doctoral students, the quality of the group leaders is decisive, and ours have many publications in renowned journals. For the junior professors, it’s attractive that they are able to create a completely independent research group very early in their career. And for the seniors, it’s interesting to help build a young institution.
Vienna Region: What makes Klosterneuburg the perfect location?
Markus Wanko: It is common that large institutions aren’t located in the center of large cities. Many renowned institutions are located in suburbs. In international terms, Klosterneuburg is relatively close to the center, with a ride time of 30 minutes. Above all, Klosterneuburg offers the opportunity to expand. There are big land reserves, which is a huge advantage over an urban location. Finally, don’t forget the beauty of the landscape. The location is very attractive.
Vienna Region: Which indications are there that IST Austria is also being recognized on an international level?
Markus Wanko: Every year, the renowned scientific journal Nature determines the world-wide research ranking “Nature Index”. IST Austria made third place. The index calculates the number of publications in the most important journals in relation to the number of employed scientists. Usually, this ranking only includes Asian or American universities. Independent of size, the most successful new institutions were ranked in a new category in the Nature Index Ranking in 2018, and we also made the Top Ten there – as the only non-Asian institute, by the way. This tells you a lot about where new institutions come about. We are a European flagship.
Vienna Region: How will IST Austria, IST Park and IST cube develop in the next years?
Markus Wanko: Up to 2026, the institute will grow from almost 750 employees today to 1,000, from almost 60 professors to 90. We will keep recruiting from all kinds of natural and formal scientific disciplines and keep pushing in areas where we are not as well-positioned yet. In terms of the IST Park, the first construction phase is finished, so we were successful in providing infrastructure for molecular biological spin-off companies. We have 13 well-equipped laboratories which are rented out to start-ups. Therefore, the first building of the technology park is occupied perfectly, and we are currently discussing the next construction phase in terms of size and partners. As to IST cube, we are currently in the process of bringing in more companies to expand the fund to a significant size.