Biopolis: "Our aim is to make the most of all the skills available in Montpellier".

Since 2018, the University of Montpellier has been a partner in the Biopolis development project. A center of excellence, based in Portugal and dedicated to biodiversity research and innovation. At the heart of this collaboration: the transfer of skills between European regions. Pierre Boursot,Isem researcher and UM project leader, and Paula Dias, Cefe researcher, arein steering the project.

Could you start by explaining what Biopolis is?

Pierre Boursot: Biopolis is a project to create a center of excellence for research, development and innovation, based on a partnership between Portugal and Montpellier. It is part of the European H2020 Teaming program, the aim of which is to promote the creation of this type of center in areas of Europe considered less advanced, in this case the northern region of Portugal, by twinning with a structure located in a European region considered more advanced, in this case France.

What themes will the center focus on?

P.Boursot: Biopolis carries out fundamental research in evolution and ecology. The research themes are environmental biology, biodiversity, ecosystem services and agrobiodiversity. Montpellier is recognized as one of the world's leading concentrations in these disciplines, which form two of the three pillars of Muse - protect and nurture - so it seemed to me that we had a card to play.

But it's in Portugal that Biopolis will see the light of day?

P.Boursot: In this case, it's not a question of creating something from scratch, since Montpellier's role is to help the Cibio-Inbio laboratory, located to the north of Porto, to move up a gear. Cibio-Inbio is the coordinator of this project, and is already an excellent research laboratory with which Cefe andIsem have been collaborating for some fifteen years, and since 2014, within an associated international laboratory of the CNRSInstitute of Ecology and Environment. So it was quite natural for them to turn to us to set up this partnership. It's a skills transfer and capacity building project.

How will this transfer of responsibility be carried out?

P.Boursot: Firstly, through training. The money from the commission will finance around nine thesis grants per year. The aim is for as many of these as possible to be co-supervised by researchers from Montpellier and Biopolis, under the joint supervision of the UM and the University of Porto. Biopolis will also fund tens of years of post-doctoral salaries, enabling post-docs to train in Montpellier. Our technical platforms will also be able to host Biopolis staff, or local staff will be able to go to Porto to organize training courses or supervise projects. The aim is to make the most of all the skills available in Montpellier.

Paula Dias: This can also take the form of various scientific events, colloquia, workshops, themed workshops, training modules... Anyone with ideas should not hesitate to make proposals to Biopolis. This type of organization often involves chasing grants, but if the theme is of interest to Biopolis, funding is available.

Isn't the aim of this partnership to finance the research projects themselves?

P.Dias : No, what you have to understand is that this is not a research tender, it's not intended to pay for equipment or research projects. The money from the commission is allocated to the overall running of the center and to this skills transfer operation between Montpellier and Portugal. On the other hand, it does pay for human resources, including in Montpellier, which account for a substantial proportion of research budgets.

How much is Europe funding?

P.Boursot : The commission is supporting the project to the tune of 15 million euros over 7 years. The condition was that the new center had to demonstrate its ability to raise at least twice as much funding - which has already been done - and achieve sustainable financial autonomy by the end of the Teaming project.

One of our main focuses is excellence in innovation. How are you going to develop it?

P.Boursot: Overall, in the field of environmental protection, it's not always easy to see what's innovation, but it is present in terms of societal value. All the infrastructures created by man's encroachment on nature need to be scientifically assessed to measure their impact and develop solutions. Genomics is also central to Biopolis. It's an exploding field that offers enormous potential for innovation, if only to characterize biodiversity and apply this knowledge to agriculture. Portugal is a very agricultural country, and we want to develop this potential for innovation and put it at the service of society.

P.Dias : And let's not forget that there's a third official partner in this project, the Porto Business School (PBS). These are very interesting allies who will be offering us all their knowledge of the world of business and partnership.

Another pillar is our commitment to society, and to the local economy...

P.Boursot: We want this center to work closely with all stakeholders who have an interest in this field. From agricultural cooperatives to multinational distribution companies, there are no limits. The idea is to create a mixed campus in the Porto region, where fundamental research, NGOs, start-ups... would all be present.

The University of Montpellier is the project's partner, but many other organizations are also involved?

P.Boursot: One of the committee's requirements was that the "advanced" partner should be a single entity. It quickly became apparent that the UM, through Muse, was in a position to represent the research being carried out by most of the UMRs on the Montpellier site, whatever their supervisory bodies. CNRS, CIRAD,IRD,INRAE, EPHE and theUniversity of Perpignan are also involved in the H2020 project.

Biopolis involves eleven Montpellier laboratories. How did you choose them?

P.Boursot: When the Portuguese came to visit Montpellier, they pointed out eleven laboratories they felt would be interesting for developing partnerships. Some of these, such as the Centre de biologie pour la gestion des populations(CBGP), were not associated with the UM. This provided an opportunity to renegotiate with all the supervisory bodies so that the UM could represent them within the project, in keeping with the spirit of Muse, thus avoiding purely legal or administrative blockages. UM has also signed a strategic partnership agreement with the University of Porto.

Beyond the leadership aspect, what opportunities could such a partnership open up for Montpellier research?

P.Dias: Cibio-InBIO is already an excellent, internationally recognized laboratory doing some very, very fine science. It's no coincidence that Pierre has been working with them for 15 years. They are also capable of raising substantial funds and opening up new partnerships in areas where France is less present, such as Portuguese-speaking Africa, and South Africa, with whom they are developing partnerships recognized by UNESCO in particular. These are gateways to these regions of the world.

What's next for you?

P.Bousot : We're just completing the legal and administrative aspects of setting up the structure, and are in the process of recruiting the executive team. Soon we'll be able to launch the flagship projects we want to promote.