During the Covid-19 crisis, enhanced breakthrough innovation from basic research made it easier for Norway to cope with and recover from the most challenging phase of the pandemic. Toril Nagelhus Hernes from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology gives a concrete example of how her university leveraged its expertise and infrastructure to ultimately serve society.
During the coronavirus crisis, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) used their experience and competence to rapidly construct a completely new method for testing, increasing the testing capacity for Covid-19 with a scaling production potential up to one million tests per week within the university laboratory.
Working together means moving faster from basic research to innovation
Experience shows that the combination of long-term basic research, various disciplines and the smart thinking from personnel in the research team, limits the transfer time from knowledge to innovation to a minimum. When the pandemic situation developed in most countries, Professors Magnar Bjørås and Sulalit Bandyopadhyay and the interdisciplinary team at NTNU used their knowledge, expertise and experience in magnetic nanoparticles, material sciences and biotechnology to design a completely new test method for the Covid-19 virus. The approach uses a magnet to pull the RNA-covered particles out of a solution containing the patient’s sample, so that the genetic code can easily be compared with the coronavirus RNA for diagnosis. The accuracy of the new Covid-19 test method was found more sensitive than available commercial tests.
This was highly appreciated by clinical colleagues at St. Olavs University Hospital, who needed more tests to cope with the challenging situation. The new method made it possible to discover and monitor the spread of the virus in Norway at an early stage, limiting complete lock down as well as making it possible to initiate the reopening of society at an expedient and secure timing.
In the extraordinary situation, the Norwegian government gave the necessary approval for the university to be a producer of test deliverables for the Norwegian healthcare system. After a few weeks of extensive development, the test method could be used all over Norway. This really emphasised NTNU as an important contributor of relevant knowledge and with the capacity and capability to rapidly transferring knowledge into important innovation needed by society.
Industrial scaling within the university laboratory facilities
Five million tests were ordered immediately for use in Norway and the university infrastructure and laboratory facilities were temporarily changed into an industrial factory for large-scale production of 150,000 Covid-19 tests per week. In order to expand the practical test analysis in other parts of Norway, an extensive learning program was rolled out to the other universities and healthcare laboratories. In addition, basic supplies, such as swabs for taking samples, personal protective gear, test tubes and reagents were ordered to set up complete test kits. With sufficient personnel and supplies, the test capacity at the NTNU laboratory can now be increased to up to a million tests per week if needed. The university is also currently experiencing an increasing demand for tests from many other countries all over the world.
Universities as important contributors to making innovation happen
Simultaneously to producing tests for the Norwegian healthcare system, the university has filed a patent of the technology, and a commercialisation process is now in progress. This will make it easier to increase the production capacity even more and deliver tests due to demand all over the world. The technological platform will also make it possible to test for new viruses in the future.
The lesson learnt is the importance of having researchers with knowledge and experience in basic research and from various scientific disciplines who can work closely together in interdisciplinary teams, rapidly solving unexpected challenges. In addition, the availability of sufficient research laboratories and production facilities and infrastructure is decisive. In addition, having a government that can make the sufficient approval by adjusting regulations needed in a crisis, making innovation happen, is of utmost significance. This case is also a very good example of the extremely important role of universities in driving radical innovations that are abruptly and unexpectedly needed in society. This will be even more prominent in the future, as the challenges we are facing will be even more complex and high-level competence from various scientific fields will be needed to find solutions for the sustainable development of society.
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