I think it was 2014 when VIB’s Innovation & Business Team initiated the talks with our lab and research center. Just like us, they saw the business potential in the field of plant-protecting and plant-stimulating microorganisms. Of course, that didn’t come out of nowhere: we had the expertise, biological agricultural products were becoming a hot topic, and the technology was finally ready. All the pieces of the puzzle were present to sketch out what would later become Aphea.Bio.
Witnessing our company’s launch last year felt a bit like seeing the birth of my own (brain)child. And looking back on the last four years, I remember mainly positive and exciting moments. What I did – developing the proof of concept, contributing to the business plan, giving scientific advice, etc. – was not a huge stretch for me as a basic scientist. That’s because there’s one constant factor in starting a VIB spin-off: you’re surrounded by professionals with complementary skills. For example, I was happy to see Isabel Vercauteren and Steven Vandenabeele, two very nice people I was already acquainted with, take on the management responsibilities. That match is very important, because they’re the ones who put your idea to the economic test. This means that, in some cases, the final business plan will differ slightly from what you had in mind. Aphea.Bio, too, had a broad theoretical basis but is now focusing on applications in nutrient stress and diseases. As scientists, we have no choice but to have flexible mindsets.
So, if you think about it, basic science and business are actually the two sides of the same coin. This is especially true at VIB, an institute with a strong focus on the translational value of research. In that respect, one thing I learned to do in the last couple of years is to be a bit more realistic in terms of feasibility or economic value of a research project. Sometimes, scientists tend to be a bit too idealistic about the potential applications of their findings. Then again, I also believe that idealism and curiosity are still indispensable forces that propel science forward. It’s our job to ask fundamental questions, even if it will take decades to translate the answers into applications. Both drivers – curiosity and business potential – are imperative to conducting leading-edge science with long-term societal impacts.