During the Covid-19 crisis, universities innovated greatly in various fields to bring solutions to complex and unprecedented challenges. This article by Annick Castiaux analyses an innovation project led by the University of Namur in Belgium, providing evidence of the particularities of innovation in times of crisis and the societal role of universities.
The involvement of universities in the Covid-19 crisis was and is still remarkable. In particular, academics and researchers deployed tremendous innovativeness to find and deliver solutions to the challenges that appeared one after the other. Innovation projects led during a crisis period have some characteristics that allow them to contribute rapidly and flexibly to societal challenges. This contribution is made by leveraging some key conditions: agility, frugal innovation, Open Science and the ability to interact widely with society. Let us illustrate that through a testing project implemented at the University of Namur in March 2020.
In Belgium, the pandemic officially began in early March. As it had already hit Asia, scientists had the opportunity to analyse the strategies that seemed to have had the best effect. Massive testing seemed to offer the best results in terms of reducing the death rate and avoiding generalised lockdowns by accurately targeting foci of infection. On day five of the pandemic, it became obvious that Belgian testing capacities would not meet the diagnosis needs, mainly because of a lack of reagents. This observation was the trigger of an inspiring innovation case.
A virologist from the University of Namur, Benoit Muylkens, was particularly alerted by the potential danger of the spreading virus and knew the importance of testing. When the testing capacity of Belgium showed its weakness, he immediately set up a diagnosis technique on the basis of well-known, simple and cheap technologies, free from reagents constraints, having in mind two main objectives: to deliver rapidly high-quality diagnoses and to organise the easy diffusion of the technique.
The success of this project (called SANA), however, could not rely only on the inventiveness of a single person: Brains and hands were required to organise and deliver this totally new service with the high-quality standards that the situation required. Spontaneously, a director of the university had already joined Professor Muylkens, offering to organise the logistics. When the university authorities launched a call for volunteers among the university personnel, 177 volunteers from all areas of the university answered with enthusiasm. Chemists joined biologists, physicians and veterinarians to perform the tests, moving very often well beyond their scientific comfort zone. Additionally, academics and scientists from other disciplines, as well as administrative personnel, joined the team to welcome and condition samples, or to manage the registration of the samples. A last resource that appeared to be necessary was a qualified scientist to manage the diffusion of the method to other teams. A scientist from the Technology Transfer Office was asked to play this role. She first organised the transfer of the technique to other universities in Belgium that decided to join the testing effort. Then, she answered the numerous information demands coming from all over the world, the technique receiving rapidly a lot of attention from emerging countries, as it provided an affordable and easy-to-implement solution to testing needs that became urgent worldwide. This transfer was supported by a successful fundraising campaign, targeted to facilitate the diffusion of the technique to developing countries. A last element to mention is the emulation that SANA gave rise to. Other teams at the University of Namur developed peripheral projects that were clearly inspired by SANA: Chemists synthetised chemical reagents, physicists worked on 3-D printing of swabs, and several research projects were built on the basis of the experience of SANA.
The answers of university researchers to the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis were particularly interesting to observe from the point of view of innovation management. The case of SANA presents remarkable characteristics that can be found in many innovation projects led by universities during the crisis.
First, university researchers, as well as others who participated in those projects, demonstrated strong agility. They quickly gained awareness of the challenges emerging from the crisis and dared to step out of their comfort zones to develop solutions or to give their time, motivation and goodwill to support their implementation.
Secondly, many solutions developed by universities were frugal innovations, using accessible resources or methods to propose inexpensive and easy-to-replicate solutions.
Thirdly, the philosophy underlying many projects was Open Science, with the willingness of researchers to collaborate, share solutions and ensure their availability, as quickly as possible and for the majority.
Last but not least, innovative projects and the high involvement of scientists in the management of the crisis generated wide interaction with society. Researchers were more visible than ever and universities, as knowledge creators, regained a central role in society. In universities, highly visible projects not only inspired colleagues to contribute to the development of short-term solutions, but led also to the development of long-term research projects or business opportunities.
To conclude, the Covid-19 crisis led universities to develop their third mission, namely service to society, more than ever. The importance of this mission, often undervalued in comparison with research and education, appeared clearly during the crisis. This observation should lead universities to question the valorisation of this third mission, especially in academic and scientific careers, and the conditions favouring the emergence of agile, open and frugal innovation projects at the service of society.
The author wishes to deeply thank Benoît Muylkens and Anne-Sophie Otto for the creation and management of SANA and for all the interesting discussions that led to this contribution.
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