An interview with Prof. Dr. med. Marc O. Schurr, Director of the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Healthcare Industries, board director at Ovesco Endoscopy, and managing director of novineon cro and Tuebingen Scientific Medical
Introducing a man who knows what it’s like setting up a successful business and how to transfer know-how and technology between science and industry. Prof. Dr. med. Marc O. Schurr helped TRANSFER magazine look back on his 25 years of experience with Steinbeis and his journey as a researcher and business leader – ascertaining that chance can also play a role in success. He also shed light on the importance of experimentation to the long-term success of a company, offering a number of useful tips for academic entrepreneurs.
Hello Professor Schurr. You’ve been a “Steinbeiser” for almost 25 years now and have also set up a number of successful companies during this time. How did your experience with Steinbeis help with this?
I’m sure that the early years of my career – in combination with my ongoing involvement in academic research at the University of Tübingen and working as the director of a Steinbeis Enterprise – formed an essential part of my subsequent career path, also as an entrepreneur.
On a fundamental level, Steinbeis offered me “room to experience” how market-related research findings can be applied to projects in industry, and that gave me an opportunity to gather experience which still benefits me to this
day. In those days, in the late 1990s, merging the activities of science and industry was somewhat out of the ordinary at universities and I think that setting up transfer centers at the universities in Baden-Wuerttemberg has allowed Steinbeis to open a door that has made an effective contribution in allowing university research to gain its bearings in terms of applying know-how – especially among stakeholders interested in this area.
For me, my experience with Steinbeis turned entrepreneurial and market-focused action into something that can be experienced, it made commercial business undertaking something that can be learned, and it provided me with a springboard for deciding to become professionally involved in the area of overlap between business and science, and not to pursue a career in the clinical field – you have to remember that I trained as a doctor. I’ve never regretted it, even though I’m still interested in clinical medicine. But of course I’m much more closely involved in the interfaces from a commercial standpoint. Despite that, I’ve never seen my ongoing work as a researcher as a contradiction. That’s something I also see within the context of Steinbeis. Some might say it’s a conflict, but it’s something I resolved early on – you can be successful according to the ground rules of both worlds.
You’re what they call an academic entrepreneur. So if you’re an academic entrepreneur, you’re also what Walter and Sienknecht call an innovation champion. How important were classic planning and systematic chance to your success?
I’m not sure I know, or not with any certainty. Chance always plays an important role in life. For me, I’m also sure it played a role in my second semester as a medical student – it was the early 1990s and I joined a working group set up by my long-term boss, Prof. Dr. Gerhard Buess. He was a pioneer in minimal invasive surgery. One thing I learned from him is that a fundamental innovation in interventional medicine automatically necessitates innovation in an associated area of medical technology. That was incredibly fascinating at the time and we stayed up night after night in our working group trying to find ways to translate ideas into prototypes in the laboratory and the workshop. The next day, we’d conduct experiments on them and just keep going till it led to a result – i.e. a clinical application that would bring benefit to patients. In essence, that’s what I still do today – in a broader sense – with all the people now at our companies.
Then Steinbeis came along and a couple of years later I was called up by Steinbeis University, and then at the same time I set up our companies to produce and sell the medical products we had developed worldwide.
I think lots of the things we encounter on the journey in life are down to chance, but the opportunities we seize and how we exploit them depends on our predispositions and enthusiasm. Looking back now, my career path feels entirely plausible even if it was never planned that way or something I “decided.”
What role does technology transfer play in business development when sharing know-how between science and companies, and why is experimentation so valuable when it comes to the success of a company?
I believe it plays an essential role. For a start, of course it’s a tool for extricating good ideas from universities with minimum red tape and giving them a chance to work in practice. Steinbeis continues to do a lot in this respect, as do others, but this transfer philosophy really needs to be strengthened and nurtured. The realization rate – by which I mean the number of ideas from research findings that get implemented as commercial ideas in the market – is still too low in the German scientific community, not just at universities but also in other areas of research beyond universities. In my opinion, the international competitiveness of Germany would still benefit from a more active culture of commercialization in science and research. Using research findings should be a quality benchmark and be highlighted more as one of the parameters of success for publicly funded projects and institutions.
Experimentation, combined with innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship – the second part of your question: The reason that’s so important is that most people at research institutions have absolutely no experience in this area. The Steinbeis model is extremely fit for purpose as a practical tool.
Engaging in this kind of experimentation and putting commercialization issues to the test allows you to find out if an entrepreneurial career path – through a Steinbeis Transfer Center or elsewhere – would be an appealing career option or whether you’d actually enjoy it. Without access to this kind of vocational space to experiment with things, some people would probably not pluck up the courage – I probably wouldn’t have either.
What would you say to academic entrepreneurs hoping to succeed in the long term – after the injection of adrenalin of a startup?
I think it’s important to keep educating yourself. All of those technological skills, motivation, staying power – they’re just some of the prerequisites of potential success, even if they’re probably the most important ones. But you also have to think about some of the key thrusts of business administration, which I think are primarily marketing and accounting, and later you’ll be dealing with law and HR issues. Even if you have someone with business know-how on board, if you’re an entrepreneur, inevitably you’ll still at least need a solid understanding of the principles of business. There are also a variety of adult education options and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-blown MBA. But you can’t completely ignore this aspect if you want to be responsible for running things yourself.
The second thing is that you mustn’t leave it too late on the innovation journey to examine the market in detail, customers, their needs, commercial possibilities – and thus also issues such as pricing and margins. People often leave it too late to think about this. But at some point, every enterprise has to be in a position to turn in a profit and to do that, in my experience success will depend on your understanding of pricing structures and the sales volumes in your market.