Research intelligence - British drive and German engineering

First UK Fraunhofer revs its engine as technology-hub model gains traction. Elizabeth Gibney writes

June 14, 2012

Source: Alamy

Innovation in its sights: the non-profit Fraunhofer network focuses on industry-driven research in 60 centres in Germany and a growing number elsewhere in the world

The master of turning research into commercial outcomes, Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, has set up shop in the UK.

The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, to be based at the University of Strathclyde, aims to be a hub for industry-driven laser research and technology. It launches in July, and its organisers hope it will be the first of many. Strathclyde also hosts Fraunhofer UK, the organisation’s UK headquarters and an umbrella for further institutes.

Tim Holt, executive director of Fraunhofer UK, told Times Higher Education that the centre would do the work that generally falls between university research and commercial product development. Businesses and public sector bodies can contract the centres to carry out research and develop it into products and services. The centres can also act as conduits to specialised expertise.

Starting small, with about 10 staff in its first year and a total of £9 million in funding from the Scottish government and Fraunhofer, the centre is expected to grow to 80 staff - 30 of them PhD students - in four years. It also hopes to match its initial funding with industry and competitive investment during that period.

“There are going to be some people transferring from universities to get it started, but from then we’ve got to hire people, because this is not a university and we have to ensure it does things universities can’t do,” said Mr Holt.

An encouraging response to the idea of a centre in photonics, an area in which a number of Scottish universities and companies are strong, drew the attention of Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish government’s arm’s-length body, he added.

Mr Holt, who worked for a German laser company before going to Strathclyde in 2001, said he saw the benefits the German model could bring: “I’ve wanted to get a Fraunhofer model going in the UK for 15 years.”

In Germany, Fraunhofer is credited with providing the basis for products such as the MP3 player and mobile phone apps such as Shazam. It has a network of 20,000 staff across 60 centres with an annual research budget of €1.8 billion (£1.5 billion), and it forms one of the pillars of the German research system.

Under its non-profit model, institutes are affiliated to universities but are independent entities, and every €1 in industry funding they receive is matched by the federal government and the Länder. A further source of money is competitive research grants, making three roughly equal funding streams.

The network, which was founded in 1949, is expanding worldwide. Countries already hosting institutes include Austria, Italy, Chile, Portugal and the US - where the most recent was installed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - while there are also partnerships with institutions in Sweden, France, Greece, Poland, Hungary and across Asia.

The UK centre is a relative latecomer, the product of groundwork laid by Lord Drayson, science minister under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, who opened talks in 2009 with Fraunhofer to encourage it to collaborate with UK universities. The academy and businesses are keen to set up additional centres, with two disciplinary fields already favourites to be given the Fraunhofer treatment, said Mr Holt. But further penetration into the UK will depend on whether the government can be persuaded to provide the necessary core funding.

It will not be easy, he added. “The issue with England is that there are no regional development agencies any more, whereas in Scotland we have Scottish Enterprise. So it’s a question of where this money is going to come from.”

The UK government does not generally fund research and technology organisations of this kind, said Luke Georghiou, professor of science and technology policy and management at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, part of Manchester Business School.

“I don’t think it’s very likely [the centres] will get core funding, although they’ll be able to get competitive funding like anyone else,” he said.

Catapult competition

Key to the government’s reluctance is its own plan to boost development in high-tech fields via its network of Catapult centres. Previously known as Technology Innovation Centres, they are being created under the auspices of the Technology Strategy Board - the UK’s innovation agency run by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Catapult centres were given the go-ahead with a £200 million four-year allocation in the 2010 spending review. They are designed to bring together the leading players in a technological area for which there is a demand for products and services - and where the UK is well placed to take advantage.

Seven fields have been chosen: high-value manufacturing; cell therapy; off-shore renewables; connected digital economy; satellite applications; future cities; and transport systems. Three Catapults will be running by this summer, and the remaining four are scheduled to be operational by next year.

Catapults, which seek to address the UK’s long-term failure to capitalise on its research base, focus on particular technological areas. For the most part, each will be based at a single physical site, and all will be backed by public, private and competitive funding.

Somewhat confusingly, they were originally based on the Fraunhofer centres - the result of a government-backed visit by Cambridge-based entrepreneur Hermann Hauser to Germany in 2010. But Catapults are now neither the same as the Fraunhofer centres nor their direct competitors, said David Bott, the Technology Strategy Board’s director of innovation programmes.

They have evolved into a distinct model that draws on lessons from many similar centres around the world, he said.

“We’re a different sort of centre. [The Fraunhofer centre] is a very Strathclyde-driven approach. We’re trying to build a focal point for the whole of the UK’s activity in that discipline, an area for everyone in the UK to reach everyone in the rest of the world.”

Homegrown model

Although there are advantages to an organisation such as Fraunhofer setting up in the UK, according to Birgitte Andersen, director of the Big Innovation Centre (part of The Work Foundation thinktank), the differences between the British and German systems mean that the UK needs its own approach, rather than simply importing a model from another country.

“I don’t think we should imitate it at all. I think something we’re doing right is we’re having some experimentation. We cannot start too firmly,” she said.

Fraunhofers are also not linked to government strategy, unlike Catapults. And despite dialogue between the Fraunhofer Society and BIS, and the latter welcoming the former’s investment, a departmental spokesman hinted that Catapults would remain the only state-funded innovation programme in town.

“We feel the Catapult programme is the right way for UK investment in new and emerging technologies, and that’s why we have set up the programme,” he told THE.

For now, Catapults and Fraunhofer centres are expected to complement each other: for example, Strathclyde will host one of the sites for the Catapult in offshore renewable energy, and the Technology Strategy Board has launched a competition in the Fraunhofer centre’s speciality, photonics, for which it will be eligible to bid.

But success could draw the attention of other devolved governments and public funding sources, such as government departments besides BIS. The proof in the pudding will be the extent to which the first Fraunhofer centre succeeds in attracting industry funding in four years, Mr Holt said.

“If they’re bringing good technology into the country, that’s something which is welcome,” Professor Georghiou said. “They’ll survive if they can be useful.”

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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