Rewards of long-term relations

December 1, 2006

Markku Leskela explains how universities, industry and students all gain from close collaboration

The laboratory of inorganic chemistry at the University of Helsinki has a long tradition of collaboration with Finnish and foreign industry.

Half its external funding, which makes up a quarter of its €2 million (£1.3 million) budget, comes from industry. There is a variety of collaboration models. These include long-term (more than a year) or short-term (less than a year) projects fully funded by industry; schemes in which half the research cost is provided by one private company and half by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (Tekes); arrangements in which several companies come up with 50 per cent or more of the cost while Tekes pays the balance; and research conducted in Tekes' own technology programmes, in which companies may make a small contribution, or none at all, but may influence the steering committee.

The laboratory prefers long-term collaboration, no matter how it is funded, for the simple reason that it allows PhD students to concentrate on and complete their thesis. The laboratory has since 1994 collaborated with ASM, a Dutch company that makes tools for the semiconductor industry. In 2003, ASM decided to shift its Finnish R&D laboratory to the university. ASM supports four PhD students and provides employment for our university's PhD graduates.

Under the arrangement, the university develops thin-film deposition processes that match ASM's products. Over ten years, we have secured 11 fundamental patents. The results of such research agreements have to be published after patenting. That is usually not a problem for partner companies. In thin-film research, we work with chemical companies to develop new compounds for the manufacture of thin films and with the semiconductor industry to develop new processes.

Agreeing the initial deal is the hardest part of any collaboration, though the university is now experienced in that role. If several companies are partners in European Union projects, agreements can be time-consuming and difficult to reach. The great variation between the systems and cultures of different countries makesit tough to reach agreements.

Another area of core research in the laboratory of inorganic chemistry is the development of new catalysts for polymerisation and oxidation. We have a solid record of 15 years' work in polymerisation catalysts and eight years with oxidation. We would not have been able to explore these areas without the funding from industry and Tekes.

A university is not the right place to undertake short-term industrial projects. We accept those only if they correspond exactly to our research profile. As most research is conducted by PhD students, they need four to five years to focus on one subject to complete their thesis.

Markku Leskelä is professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Helsinki.

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