A win-win situation
© Getty
October 2020

A win-win situation

When business and science successfully work together, hands-on knowledge from the industrial world is combined with the latest academic findings to create products with added value. But how do such university-business partnerships succeed – and how can they be systematically promoted?

Professor Marion Merklein knew practically everything there was to know about Tailored Heat Treated Blanks (THTB). After all, the materials science engineer, who’s currently the chair of manufacturing technology at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) and was recognized for her work with the prestigious Leibnitz Award in 2013, had been instrumental in inventing the heat-treated aluminum blanks composed of diverse material grades and thicknesses, as needed. For years, she’d been conducting relevant basic research, supervising master’s and doctoral theses on the subject, and performed countless experiments and simulations. She knew exactly how and where the aluminum blanks had to be heated so that they’d subsequently be easier to form into fenders or B-pillars. Plus, she knew that this special heat treatment made it possible for industry to use thinner sheet metal, lower-cost material grades and simpler tools without loss in quality.

The days of the lone wolves are over. We have to build networks of creative minds

Professor Tim Hosenfeldt,
PhD, Senior Vice President Innovation and Central Technology at Schaeffler

However, only the cooperation with a potential industrial user of her high-tech blanks made the professor realize that the components formed from the blanks had to be “washed” in a subsequent process step. Otherwise oils and greases used in the forming process would make painting them near-impossible – not good for automotive body parts. “Examples like this show why university-business cooperation is so relevant: we were a little too enamored with the pure formability and had ignored the rest,” says the professor. The technology only lent itself to successful use in high-volume production after being combined with the input of her business partner, who, in turn, could not have developed the THBT.

Lack of motivation and closed societies

Professor Thomas Baaken, Director of the Science-to-Business Marketing Research Center at Münster University for Applied Sciences, investigated the state of university-business cooperation (UBC) for the European Commission. Based on more than 17,000 interviews in 26 languages and 33 countries, the results of the most comprehensive relavant survey to date show that the top spots are held by Finland and Denmark, followed by the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Baltic States, the Netherlands and Germany, with Southern Europe lagging behind. The open culture of the Scandinavian countries is one of the factors contributing to this significant north-south divide, according to Baaken. In Scandinavia, he reports, the professors’ doors are basically open to anyone, while the further south you go, the less cooperation on an equal footing is detectable. On the other hand, there’s often a lack of trust and motivation on both sides in countries ranked in mid-field: the companies as well as the cooperating scientists there feel that they can only derive minor personal benefits and may even incur risks from UBC, according to the survey.

A win-win situation© Getty
Owning patents doesn’t necessarily mean using them

In the area of UBC, says Baaken, the United States fares no better than Europe. The system there is based on patenting and licensing scientific developments. It’s focused on commercialization via licenses and much less on cooperation and joint success. Obviously, the expert says, patents per se aren’t a negative, except when they’re just gathering dust in a filing cabinet. It’s not uncommon in the United States for patents to be bought for the sole purpose of being able to use them at some future point in time. It’s commonly known that owning is better than needing. However, as a result, it’s not uncommon for technologies to be kept away from the market rather than being put to use. “Because in early stages it’s often unclear whether economically feasible use of a patent will actually be possible, many patents remain unused due to the financial risk – and thus, strictly speaking, are flops,” says Baaken. “The success stories of many large tech companies in the United States obscure the fact that transfer into business via patents doesn’t work in 99 percent of the cases.” In Baaken’s opinion, this makes the frequently praised US system successful only to a limited extent. By contrast, European UBC project partners are increasingly filing for patents as a consortium after having previously agreed on the various forms of remuneration and commercialization. However, the requisite openness must be based on mutual trust within the cooperation, says the expert.

But how can the number and scope of successful UBC partnerships be systematically improved? Baaken’s study provides a surprising answer: In the past, it was assumed that fewer barriers would result in more partnerships, but the survey showed that “when barriers against UBC are eliminated, nothing will happen at first – but when the drivers and motivation are strong enough, barriers are just overcome.”

Therefore, the researcher from Münster advocates motivational systems that will entice universities and businesses to enter into UBC partnerships. For instance, by increasing the budgets of academic institutes and departments that are successfully engaged in UBC and by supporting the participating scientists in their career development – so far, only their output published in prestigious professional journals has been of relevance in this respect. The business community, on the other hand, might be granted special tax incentives for UBC research activities.

A win-win situation© Getty
Long-term relationships between partners

Marion Merklein shares the view that incentives make sense. Plus, she has another piece of advice she feels could be decisive for UBC success: “All the players involved in a project have to know in advance what’s possible in it and what to expect from it, and leave their egos at the door,” says the professor. Drawing up a roadmap in advance describing what will happen after completion of the project is helpful, too, “otherwise everyone will be hanging in the air,” Merklein warns. And how can a project become successful? “When the partners trust each other,” she says. “That’s why it’s best to build long-term relationships with business partners.”

Schaeffler came to this realization years ago, too, and began to establish a global cooperation network with universities (see right-hand page). “The days of the lone wolves are over. We have to build networks of creative minds,” says Professor Tim Hosenfeldt, PhD, Senior Vice President Innovation and Central Technology at Schaeffler. Thomas Baaken underlines this notion: “It’s important that, as a company, you start cooperating with universities to begin with – and vice versa.” In what areas, he adds, is not important at first. “Once trust has been established, the collaboration will soon spread to other fields – and may even result in real strategic partnerships.” With its SHARE projects, Schaeffler has already achieved this goal.

A win-win situation© Schaeffler
Joint efforts accelerate new products

What’s the best way for UBC partners to maintain the close contact that’s necessary for successful collaboration? Schaeffler’s answer: by not allowing distance to develop in the first place. In its Schaeffler Hub for Advanced Research (SHARE) initiative, the technology group based in Herzogenaurach pursues the company-on-campus concept. “The idea is to have Schaeffler employees and researchers from the respective partner universities work together in an office on the local campus,” says Dr. Michael Schlotter, Director of Applied Research – Innovation Networks at Schaeffler. “You can’t cooperate more intensively than this.” The SHARE projects are focused on application-oriented research intended to be fed into and accelerate pre-development and product development activities. Currently, there are four SHARE locations – each one with specific focal areas.

  • SHARE at KIT (Karlsruhe Institute for Technology) has been working on projects in the fields of electric and automated mobility since 2013
  • SHARE at FAU (Friedrich-Alexander University) Erlangen-Nuremberg specializes in digitalization topics and artificial intelligence
  • SHARE at NTU (Nanyang Technological University in Singapore) is dedicated to questions of robotics and Industry 4.0 (see also “tomorrow” issue 02/2018)
  • SHARE at SWJTU (Southwest Jiaotong University in the Chinese metropolis of Chengdu) is focused on interurban mobility, specifically rail transportation.

“With these SHARE projects, we’re covering a large part of the innovation fields of strategic importance to Schaeffler,” says Michael Schlotter. “However, if a demand for other focal areas emerges, we may establish additional locations. One or two may follow in the coming years.”

Denis Dilba
Author Denis Dilba
Author Denis Dilba, who specializes in topics from the fields of science and technology with relevance to mobility, is familiar with cooperation between business and academia from personal experience: while pursuing his degree, he developed an improved air intake system for a four-cylinder gasoline engine. Today, the system is used in mid-size models of a German automaker.