How to turn Europe’s large research infrastructures into engines of innovation

17 Nov 2016 | News

Europe has the opportunity to enhance its innovation capacity by strengthening cooperation between analytical research institutes and companies, providing industry with new ways to access expertise and powerful state of the art machines

The Baltic Sea region is home to a number of the European Union’s large research infrastructures, including the DESY synchrotron, the XFEL next-generation X-ray machine and the European Spallation source, but it is proving difficult to create links to industry and capitalise on the potential of these powerful machines to drive innovation, according to Helmut Dosch, Chairman of the DESY Board of Directors.

This is a most “vexing problem” Dosch told the Baltic Sea Region Transnational Research Access in the Macroregion conference (Baltic TRAM), held in Hamburg last month.

The Baltic region’s innovation potential is hampered by the “information gap” between the research infrastructures and industry. “Whoever is able to close this gap first will have a global competitive advantage,” Dosch told the meeting.

The scientific and technological breakthroughs being made using the research infrastructures in the region could create more value for customers and underpin innovation, but only if research facilities and industry can learn to talk to each other and rally behind common goals. “It takes a lot of time to understand what industry is talking about, but we need to stimulate this innovation process,” said Dosch.

For industry, the in-house research model of the old days is no longer viable. Innovation cycles have shortened, and companies do not have the time or the resources to create all the technologies they need. Dosch said that to address this, “Novel strategic structures are needed to take industry cooperation to a new level.”

The meeting gathered researchers, industry representatives and technology transfer experts to discuss how technologies developed in Europe’s research infrastructures can actually be translated to innovations that disrupt industries, and how to enhance the innovation capacity of research infrastructures.

Uwe Sassenberg, project leader of the Baltic TRAM agreed that research facilities in the region need to find new ways to collaborate with industrial partners who can benefit from access to cutting-edge labs and technologies. “We want to attract more [industry] usage,” Sassenberg said

Technology and knowledge are a natural connecting point between industry and academia, and companies should have the, “willingness to collaborate with whoever has the know-how and the human resources,” said Carlos Härtel, chief technology and innovation officer at the GE Global Research Center–Europe.

But Härtel said it is important not to pursue innovation for innovation’s sake, pointing to the development of magnetic levitation (Maglev) technology that allowed trains to run faster by gliding on a magnetic cushion. Although it attracted widespread attention and was developed, tested and commercialised in some parts of the world, Maglev failed to disrupt the global rail industry.

Many saw the technology as a white elephant, and China gave up plans to develop long-distance Maglev trains.

This unfortunate example underscores why research institutions and industry have to find better ways to collaborate to transform great ideas into economically viable products. Maglev is “a marvellous technology and lots of research went into it.” However, it failed “because no one wants to buy it, Härtel said. “Innovation must be tied to profitable products,” he told delegates.

Intermediaries between research and industry

Research facilities, innovation agencies and companies in the Baltic Sea region have put together the Science Link Network, a platform that facilitates collaboration between research and industry. Companies can more easily access Europe’s leading large-scale research infrastructures and can tap into their know-how and techniques free of charge.

Now, “the association needs to boost its marketing efforts,” said Sassenberg. The interactions between industry and the large scale infrastructures have high visibility, but the platform wants to pull in more intermediary organisations that can help bridge the information gap. “We have realised that intermediary organisations are very useful,” said Sassenberg.

Excelsus Structural Solutions is one such go between, offering industry fast, efficient and affordable access to synchrotron beam lines.

The company helps companies to conduct structural and microstructural analyses of materials used in the development and manufacturing of high-quality products. “Our customers can access synchrotron facilities relatively fast and without submitting proposals,” said Mathilde Reinle-Schmitt, of Excelsus Structural Solutions.

Another intermediary, LINX, is bringing together industry, governments and universities to help create commercial value from X-ray technologies. The initiative is sponsored by the Danish Innovation Fund, and 20 percent of the budget is allocated to outreach to industry, said LINX CEO Jimmy Binderup Andersen. “We want to develop and mature an industry portal for Danish companies to improve their R&D capability by exploiting the potential of advanced neutron and X-ray techniques,” he said.

What is science worth?

Research funders are always coming up with creative ways to measure the impact of the science they back, requiring research infrastructures to demonstrate their contribution to solving grand societal challenges. At the same time, the broader public is becoming more curious about the practical outputs of the large amounts of money poured into science, and some countries have trouble justifying investment in large research infrastructures.

Research infrastructures are already powering a procurement market of “about €3 billion every year in Europe,” said Jean-Pierre Caminade, science officer for research infrastructures at the French Ministry for Education.

By collaborating with research facilities, companies can access unique instruments and sites, data, and cutting-edge manufacturing technologies. But, in order to create more economic value from these infrastructures, a “deep change of culture in both research and industry is needed,” said Caminade. There should be more extensive partnerships and friendlier regulations.

The potential of the research infrastructures in the Baltic Sea region is being closely examined by local politicians, who want to seize the economic opportunities boosted by closer collaboration with industry.  

Barbara Duden, vice president of the Hamburg Parliament said “interlinking research infrastructures, universities and industry,” will help her government tackle important regional challenges such as sea conservation and the development of reliable renewable energy sources.

This report was supported by DESY.

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