“Knowledge that sits on the shelf is of no use to anyone”, or cooperation between research institutes and business

21 June / Sille Võsaste

The innovation leaders club held an event on 27 May in Mektory on the best practice in research and development work and cooperation between research institutions and businesses. Speakers from universities and from research, business and the public sector brought their viewpoints to the discussion and the day ended with a lively panel discussion.

The event was opened by the Head of Industry Collaboration at Tallinn University of Technology Katre Eljas. Katre spoke about collaboration with research institutions, describing the different formats for cooperation, explaining what an industrial doctorate is, and discussing grants, contracts and similar issues.

See HERE for a gallery of pictures from the event!

Why should businesses and universities work together?

“I absolutely agree that innovation that is based on science and on research and development work is innovation that has a long lasting impact, and it is through this that the economy can best be stimulated for a long time. There are other reasons for working together as well, such as the need to know about research work and research results, the desire to be close to talent, to develop an organisation and the network, and to see opportunities for development earlier, and the drive to have the best possible access to solutions”.

Katre spoke about the client journey for businesses at university. “I have heard a lot about how a university is a strange and mystical thing”, she said about the typical initial reaction of businesses. First of all it is really necessary to have an initial meeting to make clear what the business needs from the university. “It is increasingly the case today that companies actually need more complex solutions than they even realise themselves at first, as it is not just about just one technology or solving just one problem, as the problem can have many branches and need interdisciplinarity”.

“As we work out the actual needs, we can bring in various different scientists and specialists. Scientists also want to do meaningful collaborative work, not cooperation for the sake of cooperation, as researchers want to gain something from that collaboration, and to learn from it. They are interested in the knowledge that is created having real use later on and bringing value and benefits to society”, she continued. Intellectual property is always a very important issue with any type of cooperation, but there is no need to fear it. “We always agree in advance with businesses, so there would not be any arguments later”.

Cooperative projects can also be very different in other ways. The projects can be dependent upon the form of cooperation with business. Katre roughly divided these forms into cooperation through science and cooperation through study. She quoted one of her graduates, who said “when you work with the University, you should always remember that when you have left university, you have not finished with it but you are only beginning with it”. Katre emphasised that universities are very interested in long-term cooperation related to science, as that is where researchers can learn a very great deal.

“Knowledge that sits on the shelf is of no use to anyone”, she said, explaining why it is important to deliver scientific discoveries to business and to society at large.

She illustrated the importance of communication as well, saying that: “when universities are asked why they do not work with businesses, they say they do not know what it is that business needs. When businesses are asked the same question, they reply that they do not know what universities do”.

Obstacles to collaboration can come from many sources, such as time, communication, different understandings of cooperation, expectations, or a lack of money. A good basis for building cooperation is the desire and will to put in the time and provide the content, the need to find a shared goal, and the readiness to change.

Intersectoral mobility (SekMo)

Pille Pikker, Adviser in the Research and Development Policy Department of the Ministry of Education and Research, presented the opportunities offered by the ministry to help researchers and businesses work together. The aim of SekMo, which is a programme for intersectoral mobility, is to get people to move between different sectors and share their experiences. This can help increase scientific cooperation. More information about SekMo can be found here in Estonian.

The target group of SekMo is research and development institutions that have received regular positive evaluations, accredited state professional higher education institutions, institutions in the private and public sectors, and similar. Pille spoke about the two rounds of applications in the currently ongoing SekMo framework, where 43 applications have been received, of which 20 have been granted funding, while 21 have employed researchers.

She noted the difficulties that have prevented some applicants receiving funding, as some projects have not been recognised as research and development work, some projects had no goal, some companies backing projects did not have any funding capacity of their own, and some set initial requirements for employing a researcher that were too narrow by requiring a PhD from those who are still studying towards one for example, while the complicated rules for state aid are also an obstacle.

Best practice – examples of cooperation

Early Stage Researcher Karl Kull of the Department of Electrical Power Engineering and Mechatronics in the School of Engineering at Tallinn University of Technology presented the best practice for cooperation and how to achieve it. His first example was of his own experience in creating a competence centre for smart networks.

This was a SMAGRINET project supported by the European Union, and it aimed to improve processes in the energy sector and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The main aim was to release the brakes that today hold back conventional or standard energy production, which is a relatively conservative sector. “There are certainly innovation leaders in this sector, but given that energy companies in Estonia employ thousands of people, it is quite normal that some people do not understand why we are doing some particular thing”, he explained. Training experts and creating a new community in the energy sector has so far gone well.

“We mapped out 2000 European companies and asked them what they felt they were lacking”, he said, adding that they were asked about their plans for meeting the European Union’s climate goals, and more specifically whether they were lacking anything they needed to achieve those goals. This shows what is very important when starting cooperation:

  • we asked industries what they need;
  • we analysed what we can offer;
  • we assessed what we cannot do;
  • we brought in the additional skills needed.

The presentation by Kull looking from the scientist’s perspective can be summarised as “we ask what is needed and from that we bring together the right skills!”.

Promotion of cooperation between businesses and R&D institutions from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications made a presentation at the event for the innovation leaders club as Head of Innovation Policy Sigrid Rajalo, who is writing her doctorate on cooperation between universities and business, spoke about the perspective of civil servants. Sigrid said that roles are divided at the level of the ministries, as the Ministry of Education and Research works from the perspective of schools and researchers, while the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications primarily handles the needs of businesses and enacts its policies from that point of view.

Policies to promote cooperation start from the wide national measures, where the main motivator is productivity. The second key measure is helping the private sector and businesses to invest 2% in R&D.

The most important, largest and most strategic programme among the measures offered by the ministry is the applied research and experimental development programme. This is targeted to helping businesses increase the amount of applied research and post-research product development that leads to new business opportunities, so that companies can increase their sales revenues earned from new or significantly adapted technologies, products or services.

Sigrid spoke in more detail about the corporate development programme, support for product development, the support and development centre, and the innovation and development skills that are intended to offer SMEs assistance and experience of running small-scale innovation projects. Through this the innovation support offers a real opportunity to achieve something together in the laboratory. Sigrid highlighted the Startup Estonia programme as an area focused on deep technology, and there are several others besides, such as the accelerators and ecosystems for science and technology-intensive startups, the Green Fund, AIRE and more.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that it is not enough simply to have cooperation between businesses and universities, as that cooperation has to be agile. It must use other instruments and methods that are perhaps more native to the world of startups. /…/ This needs all the partners to be ready”, said Sigrid.

Best practice – examples of cooperation

Kristel Vene, Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology at Tallinn University of Technology, presented examples of best practice in cooperation.

She described the mission of universities as teaching and research, and alongside them is the third mission of universities, which is “to create knowledge, and apply and use it in the interests of society”. Kristel mentioned the Enterprise Estonia innovation grants as an example of the third mission that has already happened. “I would argue that the institution has made several of these and although the amounts granted were not spectacular, they had many other positive benefits. As researchers we can do something useful, develop ourselves and increase our knowledge, and help businesses to focus by giving them the leap in development because researchers believe in those topics and it is something that is worth prioritising”.

Kristel highlighted a project of cooperation with researchers that aimed to create healthy sweets for chewing and mycoprotein vegetarian chicken from mushrooms. She highlighted cooperation with the public sector in the quality analysis done on the dried food packs given to soldiers in the defence forces, which showed that there was room for improvement in the ingredients used. Another good example is the drug detectors of the Police and Border Guard Board.

“Every little thing that we can do as researchers increases our knowledge”.

“GMOs will save the future” said the title on one of food scientist Kristel’s slides, and she explained: “I deliberately put this intriguing title there, as GMOs are not necessarily a bad thing, as they are the future, and we must get used to that”. The slide described a spin-off from Tallinn University of Technology that is building Estonia’s largest biotechnology production unit.

Finally, Kristel spoke about a project that she says may be the most exciting, as it is a cooperation project with Letofin to add value to the waste from pressed sunflower seeds. This project brings together various current areas of focus such as the green transition, and the development programme of the Ministry of Education and Research. The project was started with an innovation grant and continued with development grants, and it has led to several masters theses while the content of the project has been applied in various study subjects and is searching for practical applications.

Panel discussion on models of cooperation between scientists and businesses in Estonia

Moderator: Siim Lepisk, head of innovation at NetGroup

  • Friedrich Kaasik, expert on technology transfers at the University of Tartu.
  • Kristel Vene, PhD, Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology at Tallinn University of Technology.
  • Alan Adojaan, CEO at Yanu.
  • Allan Lahi, CEO at ePavement.

The panel discussion can best be appreciated by watching the recording of the event starting from 1:12:00.

Some thoughts from the panel discussion:

Friedrich Kaasik said that if a company changes its direction after a long period of development work that then ends up left on the shelf of the researcher: “there remains only the knowledge that we can do the best thing in the world, but we cannot do anything with it”.

Kristel Vene said that universities were happy to speak to anyone who knocks on their door to discuss possible cooperation. “We just recently had a meeting about another idea that I thought would not fly, as it was not knowledge-intensive and many similar ideas have already been tried. In that case we had to say that we would not be involved. But another idea can be very interesting and really spark a fire. There has to be chemistry between the parties, because if the researchers are not themselves motivated to be involved, then there is nothing that can be done”.

Allan Lahi: “We need knowledge from universities. If we need a different type of knowledge we must get it from some other place and if we need a third thing we must go to a third university. The second valuable result of working with universities is marketing, as maybe saying that we cooperate with universities helps us in finding that cooperation”.

Alan Adojaan described the experience of working with several universities, and how the first time he approached a university as a business did not get what he wanted, but the cooperation with the second university went wonderfully. “We did not change the terms of reference. /…/ It was up to us to make our cooperation partners interested. We now need to restrain our researchers sometimes, to stop them thinking up too many things”.

Siim Lepisk: “Speaking of Tartu and Tallinn and of companies and researchers, we have offices in Zanzibar and Tanzania and when people there speak about time they do not say that they are spending time, but that additional time is coming to them. There is never a shortage of time, because more of it is always arriving”.