‘Set clear boundaries’ for healthy industry-academia partnerships

Companies must understand that it is not the job of a university to conduct commercial product development, summit hears

四月 23, 2024
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Source: iStock/Bogdanhoda

A healthy relationship between private companies and cutting-edge academics can result in world-class research – but it is crucial all are aware that “it is not a university’s job to do product development”, a Times Higher Education conference heard.

Speaking at the THE Europe Universities Summit in Bremen, Germany, Andrea Ferrari, professor of nanotechnology at the University of Cambridge, used the example of his own institution to make the case for clearly articulated and understood boundaries.

“Cambridge has 60,000 people in the city employed by high-tech companies, and these companies have a turnover of £14 billion or £15 billion every year,” he told the event at Constructor University.

“These companies don’t come to Cambridge to find good-quality developers. What they come to find is the knowledge they need to start new technologies.”

To ensure that this exchange of knowledge benefited all parties, he said, the involvement of a commercialisation arm such as Cambridge Enterprise was invaluable, helping to deliver a “fair return for the academics, the companies and the university itself”.

“But please,” he added, “do not do product development, do not accept a PhD student to develop a product – that I believe is exactly what a university should not do.”

Professor Ferrari said that Cambridge had set itself up to succeed as the “Silicon Fen” of today as long ago as the 1970s, when it used its extensive landholdings to turn “fields with cows and sheep” into what are now thriving innovation parks.

“Everything you see in the town of Cambridge belongs to the university,” he said. “But what companies really look for is not the real estate, not a building – it is people.

“We cannot graduate students fast enough. I tutor the fourth years and, when I meet them in September, I tell them, please do not start looking for a job until June, because if you start in October, by December you will have a job and then you will forget about the rest of the year.”

He said that while he had “personally signed agreements with 60 or 70 companies, any time a document from a company says, ‘You need to develop this device for us,’ not only do our lawyers say no, but I say no. I develop the know-how for some new technology, but you need to make the device. We are not companies; we are universities.

“But I stress again, the companies do not want the universities to do their jobs; they want to get the know-how in order to address some problems, as well as getting trained people.”

His point was reinforced by Martin Paul, rector of Ruhr University Bochum, who said that his institution had been instrumental in turning a former car manufacturing region into a thriving innovation-led economy, and that the main lesson was that “our role is to bring excellent people and develop knowledge, and then companies come”.

He added: “A former president of MIT once said that there are only three things you need to observe: one, you have to hire first-class people because they will bring other first-class people; two, young people shouldn’t work long for old people; and three, research excellence is not democratic, it is elitist. And that is how you build your ecosystem.”

Professor Ferrari concluded the panel discussion by clarifying that, while it was vital for researchers not to be confused with product developers, it was also a mistake to assume that “pure academics” should not touch private funding.

“When I started my PhD, I was working on a project funded by IBM, which was about magnetic computer discs at the time, and my first papers were related to this work, which was company work that was then commercialised,” he said.

“The point is that the problems companies have are usually extremely interesting, and they force you to think in novel directions. You can write very good, cutting-edge papers, published in Nature, Science, all the top journals, while working with companies.”

In some countries, he suggested, this was a mindset that was not fully embraced.

“Sometimes it is a frame of mind that needs to change. In my department [at Cambridge] almost everybody is a shareholder or has started a spin-out – all the most successful professors have – so everybody aspires to do that without being whipped on the back.

“I remember in Italy many years ago, [about] the idea of collaborating – companies were seen as evil, and speaking with them was something that made you dirty.

“That frame of mind needs to change. Touching the money of companies is a good thing – you don’t lose your soul and it helps you very much in producing really state-of-the-art research.”




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