Overview by the Director

Expanding the good practices developed at FIMM to the wider university community

DirectorRector Jukka Kola has initiated a plan to launch a new Helsinki Life Science Center (HLSC, tentative name), which would integrate the activities of all independent institutes and faculties in the life science segment across the Viikki and Meilahti campuses. HLSC is expected to become one of the leading centers in its field in the Nordic countries. The realization of the HLSC plans may impact the future of FIMM in a major way. The detailed plans are not yet known and will depend on an international evaluation of the HLSC plans, as well as the past performance of all the units. One goal of the reform is to propagate the good practices and strategies developed at the independent institutes, such as FIMM. Therefore, one would expect FIMM research and infrastructures to fare well, if a university-wide evaluation is carried out.

I was recently asked to summarize the good practices developed at FIMM in a University of Helsinki leadership training event. When thinking about what aspects at FIMM are important and valuable, one conclusion is clear: FIMM is more than the sum of its parts. One cannot expect faculties to fully assume EMBL-style operations, but there are several points worth considering. Here, I summarize four aspects that have contributed to the success of FIMM.

First, FIMM is an international institute at all levels and in multiple ways. This means recruiting talent at the international level in a competitive manner, from PhD students to group leaders and FiDiPro Professors. While the group leader recruitment is often attracting most attention, all visitors and external evaluators have been most impressed about the active, talented and international group of PhD students at FIMM. FIMM also has strong and close collaborations with top institutions globally, such as EMBL, Karolinska Institutet and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as the EU-LIFE community of independent institutes in Europe. FIMM has also played a key role in the development of international research infrastructures, such as ESFRI networks on biobanks and on translational research. Having an international Scientific Advisory Board or an external Evaluation Committee visit the institute every second year makes it possible to get rapid feedback, criticism and recommendations from leading international experts. A small independent institute is also able to rapidly change its course and to take action in response to suggestions.

Second, FIMM is an integrated institute, which combines biobank and technology infrastructures with molecular medicine research under one roof. Infrastructure and research should optimally be developed together. At FIMM, this has created synergistic and multidisciplinary opportunities that have helped to propel the institute to a higher level at the global forefront. Translational research, clinical collaborations and company interactions are also closely integrated and help to propagate the society impact of FIMM.

Third, FIMM is practicing team science and consortium science. Research is organized around three Grand Challenge themes, where many Principal Investigators (PIs) and senior researchers work together to achieve more than they could do individually. We have also created an interlinked community of scientists with common goals and shared visions for the future. The FIMM teams are often connected to international consortia. Today’s competitive science more and more requires a team and consortium approach to succeed. However, we also need new models for career development that reward collaboration and team work. Non-PI senior researchers and technology experts are centrally important and their career tracks need to be better developed in a University system.

Fourth, we have been successful in raising funding from diverse and complementary sources. This has required collaborative strategies and skillsets that are very different from those required for traditional PI-centric academic research grants. This year, FIMM is expected to receive about 21% of its 10 M€ external funding from the Academy of Finland, 10% from foundations, 16% from the EU, 16% from Tekes (an innovation funder) and 12% directly from companies. Interestingly, about 30% of the funding comes from sources other than Finnish taxpayers, and this proportion is growing rapidly. An international institute should get international funding from both public and private sources. We expect about 3 M€ / year of such funding this year, with up to 5 M€ in the coming years. This represents the most rapidly increasing component of FIMM funding. The reason for this success can be attributed to the fact that FIMM acts as a national hub to establish international collaborations in Finland at large.

Back to the future?

There are several national strategy documents that are being created in Finland right now in the field of health care and research, such as the National Health Growth strategy and Capital Health strategy, just to mention a few. Health care is seen as a promising area for future growth and innovation for the nation. Indeed, health technology is already the biggest high-tech export sector in Finland. Interestingly, several of these strategies are now calling for the launch of nationally funded institutions of international excellence in Finland, along with the emphasis on creating innovation ecosystems around these centers. One area mentioned in this context is individualized and personalised health care, where FIMM is a central player. Another related area is human genomics. During the spring of 2015, a national genome strategy is being published. It has been suggested that a Finnish Genome Center should be created to support the adaptation of genomic medicine. Interestingly, eight years ago, at the launch of FIMM, there was a small Finnish Genome Center that was fused to the newly created FIMM. Should FIMM now assume the tasks of the planned national genome center?

Professor Olli Kallioniemi, Director, FIMM

Overview by the Director