Nodes in seven universities around the country will build bridges with materials science and life sciences companies that could benefit from advanced imaging facilities
Sweden is setting up a national innovation platform for materials and the life sciences, to help companies make the most of research infrastructures such as the Max IV synchrotron radiation facility and the European Spallation Source (ESS), currently under construction near Lund. Seven regional nodes will be established in universities across Sweden to act as gateways to these and other research facilities.
“That regional approach is important, otherwise we will miss out on very important companies, universities, researchers and competencies,” said Pia Kinhult of the ESS, who is managing the project. “So, we are trying to create one function, and one organisation, but distributed in seven places.”
The outcome should be greater use of advanced research infrastructures by companies, and a broader awareness of what these resources can offer. “We have an opportunity now to put infrastructures in a more central position in this ecosystem,” said Kinhult.
Sweden has been working on a strategy for ESS and Max IV for several years, with national innovation agency Vinnova looking at questions of industrial involvement. Last year, the University Reference Group for Research Infrastructure decided to pick up the ball and see how this work could be implemented.
This led to the Spirit project, Swedish Platforms for Advanced Infrastructures in Research, Innovation and Technology, which has been sifting the work to date and consulting different actors in the innovation ecosystem on how the most important findings could be put into practice. Naturally enough, the universities see themselves in a pivotal role.
“The universities decided that this activity needed to be anchored within their own infrastructure, their own laboratories, which could become the starting point for leading companies to the larger infrastructures,” said Kinhult.
Part of the logic is that companies often need help making the connection between their needs and the support that larger infrastructure can provide, and that universities may also be able to help with exploratory work.
“Sometimes we may be able to use infrastructure at the university to test [an idea], and see if it would be useful to take to the large infrastructure,” said Kristina Edström, professor of inorganic chemistry at Uppsala University and a member of the Spirit steering group.
Establishing this connection should also help academic researchers keep up with industry thinking in rapidly changing areas such as the energy transition and handling materials in a circular economy.
Speaking last week at a conference on the potential of data from research infrastructures, organised by the Swedish EU presidency, Edström gave her own area of battery systems as an example.
“Industry is moving so fast that we are getting worried that academia will fall behind, and there will be a gap in the relevance of what we do in our laboratories,” she said. This could also affect the ability of universities to train the next generation of people to work in the industry.
“We have to build an ecosystem between the infrastructure, academia, and industry, in a good way, and that is what we hope the Spirit project will lead to,” she said.
In June, the Spirit submitted a proposal to Vinnova and the Swedish government on implementing the system it had devised. A favourable response is likely, although the question of funding remains to be settled. Meanwhile, the Spirit working group will become an interim board, with an extended mandate until November 2023. It will start building the Spirit organisation, which will become operational on 1 January 2024.
“Many people in the system think we should just get going, let this grow organically, and see what is right and wrong in our thinking so far,” said Kinhult. “We don’t know the level of ambition or the funding we will have from the start, but it will go ahead.”
Spirit has proposed four main areas of activity. The first is knowledge transfer, with academic researchers collaborating with industry and the public sector through workshops, courses, the creation of open materials and development of PhD programmes.
Second is advanced support for infrastructure users, for example through partnerships, mentoring and consortia. Researchers at the nodes would provide practical guidance to industry in preparing and conducting experiments at the facilities, or in entry level environments, as well as data analysis.
Third is access to methods, with a national network of expertise and resources made available to industry and the public sector. Finally, the Spirit organisation will provide a forum for exchanging experience and further developing the initiative.
The seven regional nodes will be, from north to south, at Luleå University of Technology, Umeå University, Uppsala University, Stockholm University, Linköping University, Chalmers University of Technology, and Lund University.
Low hanging fruit
According to Kinhult, there are some low-hanging fruit that Spirit can start with, such as companies working on new materials, whic are already aware that this advanced infrastructure has something to offer them.
“Using neutrons and other techniques is one way of starting to understand both materials and processes, from different kinds of manufacturing methods to new uses for old materials,” she said.
Swedish academics may already be supporting this kind of work in a low profile way. “We think that these kinds of collaboration are already taking place, so there is something happening that we can build on. And of course, we need to increase this to another level.”
The pharmaceutical industry is also well-informed, but there is scope for extending awareness further in health and life sciences. Often companies in these sectors don’t know that this kind of infrastructure has something to offer.
That is a particular challenge for places like ESS. “The hardest thing for us as a neutron facility is to do the elevator pitch,” Kinhult said. “We can do so much, we have so many techniques, and we can cover so many areas, that it is almost impossible to tell people why neutrons are useful in just one line.”
So, getting the story out will be an important part of Spirit’s work. “We will need different kinds of outreach activities, to reach as many people as possible, and this will take time,” Kinhult said. “We will not have the full resources to do that from day one, but we will slowly build up. By working with the companies who are already half-way there, we will be able to show others something concrete about the possibilities.”
Companies will be expected to meet their own costs for accessing the research infrastructure, but there is scope for helping universities. “It can be difficult for the universities to find funding for this kind of collaboration,” Kinhult said. “We will also need incentive systems for a professor or a researcher to collaborate in this way, when it may not be recognised in the academic system.”
Meanwhile, it is important that the discussion about increasing company use of research infrastructures should not exclude basic science. “We also need to secure access to these kinds of machines for classical, fundamental research, otherwise we will miss out on the contribution this can make to solving future challenges,” Kinhult said.
The issues that Spirit will address are common to other research infrastructures seeking to build links with industry. Ed Mitchell, head of business development at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, told the Lund conference that communication is one of his biggest challenges.
“If we are trying to get in touch with a company like Total, that’s 20,000 people, who do we talk to?” he said. “It would be nice to go in at CEO or CSO level, but who knows the ESRF?”
Equally, companies won’t seek out the ESRF unless they know that a synchrotron might be useful to them. ”So, we have to educate people about what the facilities can do,” he said.
He also noted a recent development in mediators for collaboration, alongside universities and research and technology organisations. “We are also seeing intermediary companies cropping up, small, nimble SMEs that help interpret industrial needs,” he said, “and that is starting to work very well.”
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