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Dominique Franco: a Surgeon, a Researcher, an Innovator

Is it possible to be an academic researcher and a passionate entrepreneur at the same time? This interesting chat with Prof Dominique Franco will answer the question and explore the most current meaning of innovation, giving an overview of the French

medical startup world.


Dominique Franco is an Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Paris-Saclay University. He was head of the Hepatic Surgery and Transplantation department at Antoine Béclère hospital until 2009. He was on the team who performed the first liver transplantation in Europe. He did his research fellowship at Harvard University, working on transplant immunology for two years ; another research fellowship at Inserm for one year ; and is now working on BioFabrication. In addition to his clinical work, he has run a master of “Surgical Sciences” program, and headed different clinical investigation programs at the French Ministry of Health and the ANSM. He was vice-president (Health) of the Paris Health Cluster Medicen for six years from 2008. He is on the scientific committee of three startups, and most of his activities are related to innovation. Dominique joined the Institut Pasteur in 2014 to coordinate a MOOC program, an educational program for sensitization to entrepreneurship, and an MD-PhD program.

As a PhD candidate in Chemistry, I spend most of my time dealing with the world of small molecules and I am very driven to discover their mysteries. But I also aim to find a practical application of those discoveries for society. Therefore, I have become extremely interested in both science and entrepreneurship; I have decided that I would like my future career to be between these two fields. What’s better than the opportunity to interview an expert to get a clearer picture of what’s out there? Here is a chat I had with Prof. Dominique Franco, a very inspiring figure working between scientific research, a medical career and startup ecosystems.

C: Let’s start from the very beginning. What was your career goal when you were a teenager?

D: At first, I wanted to be an architect. But when the time for a real decision came, I got inspired by my dad, who was a surgeon, and decided to become a medical doctor. After my first two years studying Medicine, I had the privilege to meet a young surgeon who introduced me to the world of research. That event was a great opportunity for me and had a major influence on the rest of my career.

C: You’re both a surgeon and a researcher. Has it been difficult to combine these two professional roles?

D: The combination of these two roles is difficult because they both require a lot of work and time. However, as I started very early to do research, I didn’t find it too difficult to carry on with both. The challenge just required a lot of organisation and no losses of time for my whole career. I remember that when I was an intern, I used to do research during the weekends and at night. Later, I always found some time to work on research programs one or two days per week.

C: Is it easier to integrate these two roles in the States, compared with Europe?

D: It depends. In the most renowned universities in the States, a medical student is encouraged to start doing research very early, but this is not the case everywhere. I was very lucky to work at the Harvard Medical School for two years at the earliest stage of my career because that institution gives great value to research for surgeons and physicians.

C: Did your experience in the States change your perspective and objectives?

D: Yes, definitely. It allowed me to spend two years doing research and, at the exact same time, discuss with surgeons and physicians. This experience changed the direction of my career. Without having been there, I would have never done all the research I have been performing throughout the years.

C: But now let’s talk about your passion for innovation. How would you define innovation and when did you start to work to foster innovation in France?

D: Innovation is a word with many meanings. It has always been used to speak about something that has never been done before, but lately it has often been associated with the creation process of a startup. Normally, surgeons are professionals that do innovative things, therefore innovation has always been an important component of my life. For example, when we did the first liver transplantation in Europe, we performed something completely new. Then, when I was vice president of the Paris Health Cluster Medicen and met many startuppers, I found out that innovation had a new meaning.

This period came late in my career, but it changed my vision and brought me to think that it’s necessary to push medical doctors and researchers towards the entrepreneurial world to really improve the management of patients.

C: Is it currently easy for a researcher to become an entrepreneur?

D: Performing basic research requires a completely different mindset if compared with being an entrepreneur. Especially in Southern Europe, researchers tend to think that the main priority is to improve knowledge. They’re not used to thinking that nowadays the ultimate goal of research in life sciences is to improve life and patient management. It’s very difficult to make it clear to them that the optimal way to make medicine progress is through entrepreneurship. Startups are often the vehicles for new drugs, vaccines or diagnostic tools.

C: What do you think of the startup ecosystem in France?

D: France has been one of the first creators of start-ups and, during the last decade, the government has done a lot to help the early development process of new companies. Sometimes this tendency even turned out to be a problem, because it’s easy to start but then it may happen to fail in the second or third round of investments. The startup ecosystem is pretty good in France and places like the Paris Health Cluster Medicen and incubators are good ways to mix researchers and entrepreneurs.

C: What do you think of the current gap between industry and academia?

D: The situation is definitely improving. Fewer and fewer researchers are afraid of creating a start-up or going into industry. This tendency is probably due to the fact that there is a decreasing number of places in academic institutions. However, still too often academic researchers think that working within companies means stopping research. This is not true. When you get to a startup you always have to innovate in order to put your product at the top, leading to a very interesting way to do research. This is why I came to promote entrepreneurship in research.

C: How’s the experience of being part of the scientific committee of three startups and dealing with entrepreneurs? Do you think that researchers in these roles are pushed towards an entrepreneurial approach?

D: I totally give potential medical startuppers the advice to get doctors into their scientific committees because they can be helpful in finding out the real goal of the company and to adapt their deliverable to consumers.

Two of the three startups I am in the scientific committee of are companies that I almost created together with the founders. The goal of those startups is to help improve some very special aspects of medicine. It’s very important for me to be in their scientific committees and it’s crucial for the startuppers to discuss with a doctor because it can redirect the way the research is done.

It’s extremely interesting to see an approach that is so different from academic research. Entrepreneurs are very dynamic and active. Researchers need to learn how to open their minds and that is done much more often in start-ups than in academic laboratories.

C: You’re a surgeon, a researcher and an innovator. What advice would you give to a young student that would like to integrate these three characters in their career?

D: There is not a single piece of advice. We created the MD PhD program which allows young medical students to take part very early in a research program and to have a more scientific approach of medicine and of the management of patients.

Nowadays, it’s no longer possible to practice medicine well without knowing the scientific basis that underpins diseases, diagnostic tools, treatments, prevention, etc.

Indeed, I created a research master for surgeons to make them work in good labs and understand that there is something besides the clinical world. I would give the advice to medical students to start research very early, and to researchers to get used to communicating with doctors and physicians.

This interview was copy edited by Kyrie Grasekamp. A special thank‐you to Professor Dominique Franco.

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