UGent researcher achieves innovation mandate in collaboration with industrial giant

(02-09-2020) UGent researcher attains innovation mandate at Syngenta.

Researcher Mariya Tsankova Tsaneva from the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering at Ghent University, will start her postdoctorate this year through a VLAIO innovation mandate at Syngenta, a global player in agrochemicals and seed production. What does such a mandate entail and what are the advantages compared to a traditional postdoctorate?

 

Research and industry hand in hand

 

You finished your PhD but you’re still unsure on how you want to go forward with your career. Are you going to continue in the academic or business world? It's not an easy choice but fortunately there are opportunities that combine the best of both worlds. One of these is an innovation mandate from VLAIO, the Flemish agency for innovation and entrepreneurship.

An innovation mandate is specifically intended for postdoctoral researchers to carry out a project in close collaboration with the business world, either with an existing company or with the aim of setting up a new enterprise. As a researcher, this allows you to get a taste of the private sector and gain experience at the same time.

In July, VLAIO approved 10 innovation mandates for a total budget of 1.7 million euros.  UGent researcher Mariya Tsankova Tsaneva from the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering received one of them. As a result, she is starting a collaboration with Syngenta with the aim of developing better crop protection products.

The bridge from fundamental research to industry


'Before I stumbled upon the innovation mandate, I had already applied for a few jobs in the private sector, but there I was often asked for experience in an industrial setting. As a recently graduated doctoral student I lacked this experience,' says Mariya. 'When I saw the project on social media, the opportunity immediately appealed to me.' After being selected by Syngenta and prof. Smagghe’s research group as the candidate for the project, Mariya was able to do an internship at Syngenta and multiple training sessions with her industrial and academic promotors. She also attended a training session at Techtransfer to provide her with the best possible preparation to achieve the mandate. Mariya: 'I strongly advise future candidates to do this because it highlights what the candidate needs to focus on and what to expect.’

During the project, fundamental research will take place at UGent under the supervision of Prof. Guy Smagghe and Dr. Olivier Christiaens of the plants and crops department. The advantage of the cooperation with Syngenta is the close collaboration between university and practice. There is a constant interaction in which industry gains access to fundamental research and the university can immediately test its value in practice. As a result, the mandate runs in 2 phases. In the first phase, the research phase, the mandate provides the knowledge institution with 100% of the financing. In the follow-up phase, basic support is granted to the company that will cover the full personnel costs of the mandate-holder. This creates a win-win for both the company and the researcher.

innovative crop protection against insect pests

 

The project will investigate RNA interference (RNAi) products. These products use RNA molecules to prevent the production of specific proteins which are important for the pest organisms without affecting mammals and with minimal or no effect on non pest organisms. 'By using this technology, you can very selectively neutralize pests that would otherwise damage crops.' Says Mariya. 'RNA also degrades rapidly, leaving hardly any traces after use and offers a new mode of action in comparison with the conventional pesticides. Currently many pest insects have developed resistance to many groups of chemical pesticides. RNAi exploits a new mode of action that is completely different from the working mechanism of classical pesticides.

Supervisors Prof. Guy Smagghe and Dr. Olivier Christiaens have a lot of experience with RNAi and have already achieved a number of breakthroughs in the improvement of this technology. This attracted the attention of Syngenta to implement this research in practice.

'The ideal end of the 2-year innovation mandate would be a proof of concept for a potential biocontrol product against insect pests that are currently less sensitive to RNAi technology. If we can achieve this proof of concept, the following phases for additional testing can be carried out by Syngenta. Eventually, a product may even be registered by Syngenta'.

Company, innovation center, spin-off, innovation mandate: the whole picture

The valorisation of this project includes not only the creation of a product, but also a much broader impact in the form of investment, creating new jobs and helping young researchers acquire additional expertise.

Syngenta also has an innovation center in Ghent, the former UGent spin-off company DevGen. Given the great potential of the RNAi technology for more sustainable agriculture, Syngenta acquired DevGen in 2012, maintaining the expertise and research in this field in Ghent.

'The research I will do through the mandate will allow me to develop both my experience in lab techniques as well as to see how a business operates. After this experience, I will certainly be able to make a better decision about my future career' concludes Mariya.

Are you also curious if a research mandate in cooperation with industry might be something for you?

Then be sure to contact us via techtransfer@ugent.be or take a look at www.ugent.be/techtransfer!