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Meet Smiljka, Head of RISE office

Today we introduce Smiljka Vikic Topic, Head of RISE office! With a rich background spanning from molecular biology research to impactful leadership roles, Smiljka brings a wealth of experience and insights to the table. She is an active member and VP-Europe of the knowledge transfer association ASTP and is engaged in the Alliance4Life_ACTIONS project, a bottom-up initiative of twelve leading life science institutions from eleven EU-13 countries aiming to close the divide in European health research and innovation. Read more about Smiljka’s impressive career path and her vision for RISE in the interview below.


Can you describe your transition from a researcher in molecular biology to your current role as Head of RISE d.o.o.? What were the most significant challenges you faced during this transition, and how did you overcome them?

My background is in chemistry, I am chemical engineer, but I switched to molecular biology and got the Master of Science degree in molecular biology. I gained valuable experience working as a researcher in prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA, as well as the University of Zagreb in Croatia. I continued my research journey at the PLIVA Research Institute in Zagreb, a Croatian pharmaceutical company later acquired by GlaxoSmithKline. Recognising the need for flexibility, due to family reasons, I switched my lab-work for the office job. I started managing contract research and collaborations where I acquired knowledge in the field of intellectual property, financials, contract drafting, negotiation, management and technology transfer. Although demanding and totally different, this job offered me big satisfaction with meeting new people, travelling and getting overview of research within drug discovery and pharma business in general. We collaborated a lot with public institutions all over the world as well as with spin-offs from the universities. Knowing about creativity and inventiveness of Croatian scientists, I wanted to contribute to development of technology transfer in the public sector and I got the job at the University of Zagreb School of Medicine (UZSM). With the immense support of the visionary Professor Nada Čikeš, dean at the time, we established Technology transfer office within the Centre for translational and clinical research. After 14 rewarding years at UZSM, I was pleased and excited by the invitation from Jörg Scherer, our long-term collaborator. Although probably at the age when the new beginnings are not very common, I have whole-heartedly accepted this unique opportunity and here I am today.
I always loved changes at work, they nurtured me with new opportunities and welcomed challenges that I always loved to embrace. The combination of challenges and continuous learning, along with the opportunity to meet new people, remains my comfort zone even after more than 35 years of work.

You have extensive experience working in both the academic and industry sectors. How do you navigate the differences in culture and priorities between environments and could you share any specific strategies or experiences that have been particularly valuable?

I see the pros and cons of both. While the industry is changing fast and decisions are made quickly, it often means that some excellent ideas are abandoned without an opportunity for development. On the other hand, academia operates at a slower pace, allowing scientists to explore the subjects deeper, valuing any outcome that contributes to new knowledge. However, in my experience, academia tends to resist change in management practices. During my work in academia, I found it particularly challenging to navigate the lack of decision-making and the reluctance to adopt change. Even minor improvements often took too long to be implemented. There are many excellent people working in the public sector but they are dispersed, barely recognised, and their positions are often not aligned with their wishes and capabilities. My personal approach was to work with the best scientists, people who wanted change and who appreciated different culture that my colleagues, who also came from PLIVA/GSK and me tried to implement. Professor Slobodan Vukičević got two EU projects, OSTEOGROW and OSTEOproSPINE as a coordinator, as a best example of what I explained. We had some other success stories: project Alliance4Life that was aiming to culture change and raising capacities of public institutions in EU13 countries, GLOWBRAIN, led by Professor Srećko Gajović, medical device that is now in clinical trial invented by Professor Mislav Jelić, investigator initiated clinical trial led by Professor Maja Čikeš, to name a few of my champions.

As an active member of ASTP, the European association of knowledge transfer professionals, what do you see as the most pressing challenges and opportunities in knowledge transfer and technology commercialization in Europe today, and how do you plan to address them in your role at RISE?

One of the significant challenges facing technology transfer professionals lies in expanding the scope of their activities towards social innovation and knowledge valorisation, moving beyond 'pure' technology or knowledge transfer. Aligning with the new ERA and Guiding Principles for knowledge valorisation, technology transfer professionals should acknowledge and facilitate the transfer of results that hold importance for social benefits, even without direct commercial value. This shift emphasises a move from primarily protecting intellectual property to a broader approach centred around effective management. Furthermore, within the European Innovation Council projects, technology transfer offices (TTOs) all-over Europe have more tasks and are more scrutinized due to strong emphasis on commercial use of the results. TTOs from EU13 countries encounter additional challenges due to insufficient knowledge and capacities to perform these tasks and need support and assistance from more experienced and better skilled colleagues involved in larger number of projects. Collaborative initiatives play a crucial role in bringing together key stakeholders within the ecosystem, offering support to maximise the impact of EU R&I projects. RISE, in partnership with EURICE, can make a difference in that regard.

Can you provide insights into RISE's approach to tackling these challenges and how it aligns with the organization's mission of fostering innovation in widening countries with emphasis on EU13 member states?

RISE has the potential to co-create the innovation ecosystem in Croatia and the broader region. This region currently faces fragmentation and limited experience in IP management. RISE aims to address these challenges by raising awareness, training researchers, research managers, SMEs and other target groups and bringing all stakeholders together, industrial partners, academia, investors, policy-makers.... The best channel for achieving this is through the European IP Helpdesk, which has just started its new term, focusing in particular, on EU13 member states’ needs. RISE, as a partner in the new consortium led by Eurice, contributes valuable insights about the regional network and brings deep understanding of the needs of research institutions and industry, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in widening countries. RISE will pro-actively approach institutions from EU13 and other widening countries that could benefit from better and more efficient IP management in order to better use and exploit the results of their research and innovation activities. We will provide in-person and on-line training in widening countries, consultancy through helpdesk, raise awareness about the service and importance of IP management… It would be particularly rewarding to have our own flagship project, with RISE as a coordinator, that would enable us to co-create the innovation ecosystem in the region.

RISE is currently participating in 14 Horizon Europe projects, mostly in the field of health, but also quantum physics, materials and social sciences. According to Horizon dashboard, we are currently 4th in Croatia according to the number of participations (projects) and first SME; we are sixth according to net EU contribution (second SME), with an upward trend! Regarding topics, for me it is incredibly interesting to witness the increase in the use of artificial intelligence and big data in the projects from all fields. Challenging times we live and work in! RISE will actively encourage participation in Horizon Europe projects of the beneficiaries with outstanding scientific ideas, but lacking knowledge and skills to write a proposal and experience with dissemination and exploitation of the results. Collaborating with EURICE, we contribute to the development of competitive project proposals and actively engage in project implementation, serving as a partner for IP management, dissemination and communication, thus maximising projects’ impact. Additionally, we offer support for project management in complex, multi-partner projects.

How do you plan to leverage your extensive international experience to benefit local research and innovation efforts?

Over the years, I have built up an extensive network of experienced Technology Transfer (TT) professionals from the EU, the UK, and the USA, with whom I am still in contact through my membership in the ASTP and directly. As a Vice-president of the ASTP Board, together with other colleagues coming from EU13 member states, I am already raising awareness among the community about the challenges we are facing, especially TT professionals and other research managers. European institutions are aware that excellent scientists are working all-over Europe, but some of them have less resources, smaller support and have to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve same results as their colleagues from more advanced institutions. Widening programme within Horizon Europe offers lots of opportunities for these researchers, and I hope the gap between west and east, EU14 and EU13 will narrow over time thank to many undertaken initiatives.
Being a part of European associations (ASTP) or working with them (EATRIS-research infrastructure for translational medicine, EARMA-European association of research managers), I am exposed to many initiatives at EU level and met professionals from many countries and numerous fields of interest. For example, initiatives such as knowledge valorisation, citizen and patient engagement, open science, research integrity and ethics… prove very useful when aligning the efforts of research, industrial, public and government stakeholders towards common goals.

Can you clarify the relationship between RISE and EURICE, and how the two organizations co-exist and mutually benefit from each other's activities?

While EURICE brought a plentiful experience as a long-established entity compared to RISE, our collaboration has been essential in facilitating a seamless onboarding and training process. EURICE's support has played a crucial role in ensuring RISE's smooth initiation, incorporating us into their well-established system for EU project participation and enabling us to swiftly become operational. Despite being a young company with much to learn and build in terms of our own experience, RISE has made significant achievements during its first year. Our team members brought diverse knowledge and expertise, enhancing the overall value of our collaboration with EURICE. We know and understand the ecosystem in EU13 countries, their challenges and issues, their needs and limitations. We bring experiences from various backgrounds introducing fresh ideas that contribute to mutual organisational change and development.

As RISE continues its efforts to nurture innovation, collaboration, and economic advancement, could you share future plans and approaches for enhancing its initiatives and increasing its influence in the years ahead, with a particular focus on the Widening countries and EU13 regions?

Our goal is to become an important and well-known “player” in the region - resource for innovation and IP management within EU research and innovation projects and beyond. This can be achieved, as already mentioned, through the EU IP Helpdesk, but we will also strive to have our own flagship projects in this field. My personal goal is to increase the number of Croatian coordinators in HORIZON Europe. Despite the presence of outstanding and innovative scientists in Croatia, the current system may not be as supportive for those courageous individuals who aspire to excel. I wish RISE could make a difference and help them succeed.

What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your role as the head of RISE d.o.o.? Are there any specific achievements or moments that you consider to be particularly rewarding?

For me, people are the most valuable asset, who are always the most rewarding part of my job, especially as a Head of office. I enjoyed our first-year journey (and a little more), witnessing our team-work, growth and development of our relationship. We built trust, cultivated mutual support and fostered an environment where ideas are freely exchanged, conversations flow, and help is readily available. My overarching goal is for RISE to establish itself as a well-known participant in the regional innovation ecosystem and desirable partner in HORIZON projects. Once this vision is realised, on my personal plan, I can envisage a smooth transition to my retirement and the new generation taking over. The balance between professional and personal life is, and always was, very important to me. I am convinced that fulfilled personal life helps us to be better at work and vice-versa. I always loved my work and dedicated big part of my life to it, but my family is the most important to me, and I was lucky and I am grateful that throughout my career I had understanding and support from my husband and the whole family.