Souleymane Kamara: "There's been a real change in the perception of value creation".


In this second episode of the series devoted to the promotion of scientific research at IN2P3, we met Souleymane Kamara, who is in charge of promoting scientific research at IJCLab. He tells us about his job and his passion for helping scientists to commercialise their discoveries.

How did you come to be Head of Development and Innovation at IJCLab ?

I did a PhD in materials physics at Montpellier. During my postdoc, my team and I filed a patent relating to magnetic sensors and we tried to develop it through the creation of a start-up. The experience lasted about three years, during which time I acquired non-scientific skills related to the valorisation of intellectual property, fund-raising, economics, management, marketing and so on. That's how I went from being a physics researcher to becoming the technical manager of a start-up. Unfortunately, the [SK1] project didn't go ahead. When I was looking for a change of direction, I discovered that the CNRS was offering a position for a technology transfer manager where 50% of the time would be spent as a research engineer in scientific instrumentation and 50% on transferring the results of the research. So I took the competitive entrance exam and joined CNRS, first at IPNO and then IJCLab after the merger of the various labs in Orsay.

When you were a researcher, what gave you the idea of developing value from your work ?

The patent that we filed was co-owned with a South Korean laboratory that already had this culture of valorisation. For example, they had already filed patents. Very early on, we were joined by a start-up from Toulouse and a major French company [SK2]. As we discussed the strategy for developing this patent with these partners, we quickly came up with the idea of creating a start-up to develop and market these magnetic sensors, so we weren't alone in this development project.

What does the job of a development manager involve ?

My first year was almost entirely devoted to identifying the needs of the laboratory in order to better support researchers in their desire to promote research. Today, I do several things. In particular, I detect innovations, i.e. I get involved very early on in projects to see how they are set up and assess the potential industrial spin-offs. Depending on the results, I can carry out market studies to check whether a need exists and, if so, I encourage researchers to file a patent and protect the intellectual property. This is an important point, because scientists tend to publish very quickly without first protecting their intellectual property. I also do a lot of awareness-raising on the subject through webinars.

What other aspects do you handle ?

There is also a funding search component, depending on the level of maturity of the project to be developed. In other words, knowing who to contact according to the level of maturity of a project in order to obtain tailor-made funding. I also do a lot of promotion at trade fairs where we present the expertise of our research platforms and the results of our work. I also help scientists to set up their own projects, because they often don't know how to go about it for the first time, and it's part of my job to support them. They give me all the scientific and technical information I need and I take care of the rest. Every day I work on a different theme, because we have 7 research centres. So I can work on both nuclear physics and engineering. That's why my activities are so diverse and why I enjoy my job so much.

How do you go about identifying innovations and imagining potential applications ?

In fact, it's never me alone who detects potential applications. I'm in constant discussion with the scientists, so it's a collective process. In certain fields, such as health physics, where there are already many applications, scientists are even very aware of what is already being done. My role is then to go and see doctors or practitioners directly to assess the value of the innovation. There can be a discrepancy between the way scientists see the value of their discoveries and the real expectations of the market. In short, I assess the impact of innovations, and it is in this mediation between the market and the scientists that my added value really lies. In doing so, I provide guidance to researchers, who can redirect their research to better meet the expected requirements.

How do you get people to understand the importance of valorisation in their work ?

There's a great deal of dialogue in my work, because the principle of promotion is not self-evident. It depends on the profile, the individuality and the people involved. The message I try to get across is to systematically remind people of the CNRS's objectives. When you join the CNRS, you probably don't put enough emphasis on the duties of researchers. One of the CNRS's three missions, in addition to producing knowledge, is to use that knowledge to contribute to France's socio-economic development. This is the CNRS's second main mission. So it's an important thing, and scientists are not very aware of it. I myself was unaware of this when I was a researcher.

Are scientists reluctant to get involved in value-adding ?

The main obstacle is lack of time. No sooner have scientists finished one research project than they have to refocus on finding funding for the next. But that's where I play an important role. I tell the researchers to keep working on everything scientific and technological, and I take charge of everything to do with commercialising the project, including the administrative aspects. And to convince them, I remind them of the financial benefits. Not only is the inventor of a technology directly remunerated with a certain percentage [SK3] of the income from his or her work. What's more, the part of this income that goes back to the laboratory can be directly reinjected into research to fund new projects.

Have you noticed any change in the perception of value creation within IJCLab ?

Yes, there's been a real change! I've really seen an increase in involvement, with projects coming together very quickly. For scientists who were already open to the principle, but who lacked the time and above all the support, things were able to move very quickly. Some have even embarked on collaborative research projects with private companies. In these cases, the private funding supports the research project and enables them to take on doctoral or post-doctoral students.

Can you give us an outstanding example of how IJCLab has worked since you arrived ?

Yes, and I even have several! For example, in 2021 we created a start-up, Beams, which works on health physics issues. This start-up is developing a portable imager that can detect and locate in real time the presence of residual cancer cells when a tumour is removed. This machine is therefore of crucial importance, and the prototypes developed so far are very promising. This start-up was a winner of the i-Lab 2023 innovation competition, was present at VivaTech and is now one of Challenge magazine's 100 companies to invest in, and the number one MedTech start-up. The other example is a transfer of know-how around particle accelerators with a French company. n the field of accelerators, IJCLab has developed and accumulated unique expertise in the design, testing and assembly of cutting-edge scientific equipment in ultra-clean environments.  As more and more particle accelerators are being built around the world, there is a growing need for this expertise. After two years of discussions, we have transferred our knowledge to this company. The benefits for the laboratory are threefold. The transfer frees up the time of our engineers and technicians for research and development, which was previously devoted to the mass 'production' of this equipment. There is also a financial interest linked to the exploitation of this know-how by the company, which in the medium and long term will make it possible to finance the laboratory's research projects. Finally, this transfer will also help to boost the competitiveness of French companies.

What would be your "ideal career path" within the IJCLab ?

Of course, I'd like to see teams of scientists doing more to promote their work. Researchers are being encouraged to set up start-ups and promote their work, but it's important to remember that this is a recent development! Twenty years ago, for example, it was forbidden for a researcher to create a start-up while still working for the CNRS.

Ideally, there should be more funding to develop 'risky' projects, because for every project that succeeds, there are many that 'fail' from a market and business point of view. We also need to take account of the value-added and innovation aspects in the evaluation of researchers' careers. This would remove a lot of the reluctance to take the plunge.



Souleymane Kamara
Chargé de valorisation