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A winning formula for innovation

By Dorothy Lozowski |

Innovation is the key to economic growth, and research and development (R&D) is key to innovation. While industry recognizes that R&D is vital to longterm success, it focuses, of course, on marketable results from research — after all, R&D is expensive, and cost without any foreseeable return is not good business. From my R&D background in the chemical process industries (CPI), I’m familiar with the struggle around keeping R&D efforts — particularly longterm programs — aligned with the scalable and profitable results sought by industry, while allowing the bright, scientific minds attracted to R&D the freedom that they need to explore and discover.

Various strategies have been developed and implemented to help bridge the gap, such as the stage-gating procedures that may allow great freedom in the early stages of research, but call for intermediate review measures to stop funds from pouring into research that does not look promising in terms of potential profitability. Some companies have coupled their R&D centers with their marketing teams to make sure that all R&D efforts start off with and continue to target a marketable end in mind. Industry also participates in cooperative efforts with university research teams. Boosts to innovative R&D have come from government economic stimulus funds in the past year. One example is in the area of battery development in the U.S. (see “CPI Energized by Battery Funding,” Chem. Eng., September 2009, pp. 16–23). And in Europe, Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has recently announced a nearly €6.4-billion European Commission investment in research and innovation, covering a vast range of scientific disciplines and other sectors.

Meanwhile, another approach is demonstrating success in what seems to be a win-win situation for all involved. The Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs (the Hague, the Netherlands; www.ez.nl) supports a number of innovation programs where funding from both industry and government is combined with university resources in “pre-competitive” R&D efforts. Intellectual property arising from these efforts is typically shared among partners within a technology area, with various options available to both industrial and academic partners for further development. Two examples of this are the public-private partnerships, DPI (The Dutch Polymer Institute; www.polymers.nl), which conducts research on polymers and their applications, and M2i (Materials Innovation Institute; www.m2i.nl), which conducts fundamental and applied research on structural and functional (non-polymer) materials. Both programs are designed to operate at the interface of university and industrial R&D.

DPI manages over 180 researchers from various universities and has over 30 industrial partners. In addition to the opportunities arising from the actual R&D, DPI’s program has a number of advantages. The student researchers are exposed to the industrial cultures of participating companies early on, while still in the university environment. It is reported that about 80% of the students find a job either in a participating company (~60%) or in a participating university (~20%). This itself attracts students to the universities, creating an influx of bright minds to R&D so that there is no shortage of new students. The prospect of potential employment also encourages good work during the program. In turn, companies have the opportunity to hire “tried and true” employees from the pool of students with whom they have already worked. Overall, this open innovation approach seems to be a winner for longterm success.

Dorothy Lozowski

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