After some teething problems, the plans for the new agency are taking shape, with the formal launch expected early next year
It’s exactly one year since Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the ‘traffic light’ coalition of his SPD party, the Greens and Free Democrats came to power with a vision for reforming German research.
One of the key promises for science is to create a federal technology transfer agency, the German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI), to spur technology transfer from universities and research institutes.
FDP’s Mario Brandenburg took over responsibility for the DATI project in June when he was appointed parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In an interview with ScienceBusiness, he reported on progress to date, the trajectory for the agency, and how Europe’s technology transfer ecosystem can be reformed.
Despite Germany’s high innovation rankings in international polls, Brandenburg, a computer scientist who spent eight years working at SAP, Europe’s largest software company, says there is a lot to catch up on when it comes to digital innovation transfer. “I would say that in traditional technologies we are relatively competitive, but with digital technologies we are not.”
Part of this digital catch-up is seen in the economy ministry’s early Start-up Strategy that aims to make it easier to create spin-offs from universities, and to set up these businesses digitally. “The BMBF part [in the strategy] was to make sure that it's easier to run a start-up out of traditional science system,” [and] “to work on how this can be valued not just monetarily and by writing papers, but being entrepreneurial, like we see in the US,” Brandenburg said.
In the past year the BMBF has also been working on its own Zukunftsstrategie, or ‘future strategy.’ This is still in development, but plans to overhaul Germany’s research funding structure to align it more to specific broad missions, with objectives such as as securing the technological sovereignty of Germany and Europe, and exploiting the potential of digitisation.
“We see that the system basically has never really learned to think in missions,” said Brandenburg. Within Germany this change in perspective should boost interdisciplinary research and help politicians better communicate the benefits of science funding to the public. “The research community and political leaders have to execute on this and rethink it in their financial plans and roadmaps, to really learn to be focused on society,” he said.
On a European scale, Brandenburg says that the strategy will also look at how start-ups can scale to reach the entire EU market, something which the German and French governments have already committed €1 billion each to achieve.
Freedom to operate
The Zukunftsstrategie also plans to improve the structures for innovation and transfer, which is where DATI comes in.
“Compared to a research strategy, I would say it's physical,” said Brandenburg. “We have to create an agency, hire people, and really give DATI the freedom to operate as much as we can in the system.”
Some of the tasks for the new agency include funding local technology transfer services, providing training courses, attracting local and national venture capital for start-ups, and developing regional networks between research and businesses.
DATI is not the first federal agency for technology transfer. The Merkel government’s SPRIN-D was launched in 2019 but quickly ran into bureaucratic red tape. Brandenburg says there is a contradiction in an agency financing risky new technologies but still needing to follow strict public spending rules and a ‘SPRIN-D Freedom’ law is now being developed to give it more power to spend and hire people where it sees fit.
In contrast, DATI is planned to have decentralised innovation ‘regions’ throughout Germany, each led by regional coaches who can quickly adapt or even cancel technology transfer projects. These regions get funding from a centralised management board, which in turn works with a group of local and national stakeholders to come up with new ideas for transfer strategies and programmes.
Brandenburg says this broad setup will allow different regions to experiment with their transfer projects, and in doing so offer lessons to other regions. “This is why DATI is an agency, and not only giving money,” he said. “What we want is for transfer to work, and that ideas [created] from taxpayer money [are] not going into a folder or a dumpster.”
That mix of top-down and bottom-up transfer leadership is new for Germany, which is partly why it is taking some time to set DATI up. “We have a lot of stakeholder communication, because to them it’s new as well, and they want to know how it works. It's basically new [to] both worlds,” said Brandenburg.”
The interchange with stakeholders has proved crucial to satisfy researchers and parliamentarians in recent months. In April the German press reported that a group of independent innovation advisers to the government had criticised the preliminary plans for DATI. According to the report, the plan was too focused on smaller universities in select areas of Germany, and the regional coaches could easily become overwhelmed.
The federal finance ministry seemed to agree and in May this year froze money earmarked for DATI, asking for a more coherent concept. Following this, Brandenburg took over from his party colleague Tomas Sattelberger as the parliamentary state secretary at BMBF.
Since then, Brandenburg and the ministry has spent time meeting national and regional non-governmental organisations, politicians, and research leaders to fine-tune the structure of the agency. They have also emphasised that DATI will also be open to larger universities throughout Germany.
The DATI regions will also include people from the social sciences, who will assess the ethical and social implications of new products. Brandenburg says this is particularly important when catching up with other European countries bringing digital technologies to the market.
“If you think about the multi stakeholder model, we’re not only giving money to one actor, there has to be at least somebody from research, plus different partners, for example from society,” said Brandenburg. “These all give balance.”
Including civil society in tech transfer can better avoid the early Facebook-era problem of chasing profit at the cost of social cohesion. “We want to have people who want to use [new technologies] in these communities as well,” he said. “They would raise that concern if things could go wrong, because nobody wants to be the one creating the ‘evil’ in that case.”
In November the Bundestag’s budget committee approved €14.6 million funding for DATI next year. This money will go into setting up the physical presence of DATI, such as hiring staff and determining what legal form it should take.
That will allow DATI to start its first activities, which will involve coming up with project regions, setting up the first pilot technology transfer lines, and external communication. One idea for this, says Brandenburg, is to have a roadshow that goes beyond Germany’s big cities, to speak to more regional figures.
The 2023 funding is only a fraction of DATI’s proposed annual budget of €50 million (for the agency plus its innovation activities), which Brandenburg anticipates will be released in 2024. The final concept for DATI is now being developed in time for the formal launch early next year.
“The [budget committee] said they wanted the full concept,” said Brandenburg. “We gave them the money side of the concept, but not the full one because we first want to do stakeholder dialogue.”
“I don't want to launch a paper on how an agency which should facilitate the research community operates before talking to research communities themselves,” he said. “I am a firm believer that this needs to be in sync. We are not building DATI because we can, or because we have to do it, but because we want to fix the problem.”