Innovation’s core values

Britain needs Fraunhofer centres as well as Catapults if the ‘invention revolution’ is to materialise, asserts Tim Holt

January 9, 2014

Fraunhofer centres focus on a core technical competence which ensures a close identification with a particular research community

In his recent review, Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, Sir Andrew Witty suggested that universities should adopt a third core strategic goal alongside teaching and research: facilitating economic growth by developing and commercialising technologies.

But the German experience suggests that trying to force academics to think like entrepreneurs may not be the best way to achieve results.

Germany has long been looked upon as a model for how to harness the best scientific research to drive industrial progress. When setting out the aims for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory in 1901, the aeronautics pioneer Sir Richard Glazebrook noted that Germany enjoyed “a perfected alliance between science and commerce”. If England was losing supremacy in manufacturing and commerce it was because of “the failure to utilise…the lessons taught by science, while Germany, once the country of dreamers and theorists, has now become intensely practical”, he said.

But while university research is a vital source of innovation and commercial opportunity, the academy and business fundamentally don’t mix. It has often been noted that universities’ timescales and ways of working don’t always match those of industry, and there are often greatly differing expectations on the two sides. To work effectively with industry, you need to have a commercial mindset, be focused on delivery and be used to working to contract timescales. You also require a pragmatic, industry-led approach, focused on solving industrial problems in the short term, while working with universities to develop scientific excellence over the long term.

Since 1949, this role in Germany has been filled by its Fraunhofer institutes: expert research and development organisations that sit between universities and business and deliver research contracts for industry while working closely with pioneering university researchers.

Before the last UK general election, both major parties commissioned reports on how the UK could improve the industrial translation of its research. Sir James Dyson (in Ingenious Britain, commissioned by the Conservatives) and Hermann Hauser (in The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK, commissioned by Labour) agreed that a version of Fraunhofers was what the UK needed. But what we got – Catapult centres – have significant differences from Fraunhofers and, on their own, are unlikely to spearhead an industrial revival.

The Catapults’ parent organisation, the Technology Strategy Board, tends to focus on near-term industrial needs and the centres – organised on a multi-partner “hub and spoke” model – are run on broad societal themes, such as “future cities”, “transport systems” and the “connected digital economy”. But there is currently insufficient support for the underpinning research and technology that is key to real success in these areas.

By contrast, Fraunhofer centres focus on a core technical competence, such as microelectronics, photonics or chemical technology, which ensures a close identification with a particular research community and relevance over the long term to a wide variety of industrial sectors. They also train substantial cohorts of students from their partner university (which directs their research programmes), producing generations of PhD students who are “industry ready” in specific technological areas. Without the technical focus of Fraunhofer centres, Catapults lack the practical technologies they must have if they are to succeed.

In Germany, Fraunhofers receive 30 to 40 per cent of their income from industry contracts and 20 to 30 per cent from public research funds. The rest comes from the government and is dependent on and matched with the industrial income they receive – a big incentive to expand into areas of industrial demand.

There are already Fraunhofers in countries including the US, China, Portugal, Italy, Sweden and Chile. The first UK centre (for applied photonics) was established in 2012 at the University of Strathclyde. But for more to follow, there needs to be a long-term financial commitment from the government, over and above the £200 million it has allotted to the Catapult programme. Otherwise Witty’s dream of an “invention revolution” in the UK will fail, once again, to materialise while Germany will continue to go from strength to strength.

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