08.12.2021 – From the internet to seatbelts, ultrasounds to Gatorade, the pioneering research behind scientific and technological innovations we now take for granted all came about thanks to business and academia working together. Much of this work, however, is done under the radar. For the most part, the public are unaware of the technology that drives their mobile phone or how COVID contact tracing works. Logitech and Solar Impulse are both examples of successful outcomes of research partnerships.
For over 30 years, EPFL has been a leader in innovation. In 1991, the first university business incubator in Europe, the EPFL Innovation Park, was founded right next door.
Logitech shares its 40-year history with this prestigious institution – our global headquarters is here on campus and there’s a good reason for that. We’ve grown this dynamic exchange that explores new techniques and technologies together – it’s been quite an exciting journey with EPFL.
As a pioneer in transferring academic knowledge and research to society, the university develops strategic relationships with industry to support researchers in delivering their innovation to market.
“Grounding research in real data, which comes from real-world processes and customers creates better focus,” says Dan-Cristian Tomozei, Research Director & Site leader at Swisscom – a company which has worked with academics at EPFL for more than 10 years. “With data we can concentrate not on possible problems, but on immediate, pressing ones.”
Today, EPFL’s Corporate Relations team together with the Technology Transfer Office continue to act as a bridge between academic research and industry. It is their job to ensure research breakthroughs make their way out of the labs and can make a real impact on people’s lives. But what are the reasons behind their success? And what lessons can be learnt?
An ecosystem of partnerships
“Our approach to successfully transferring technology and scientific knowledge to society is through an ecosystem of partnerships. We identify and nurture synergies and points of common interest. We act as a conduit – bringing ideas from our labs direct to industry and enabling industry challenges to be shared and solved in collaboration with our world-class academics,” explains Dr. Robert Giezendanner-Thoben, Head of Industry Affairs at EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation. “At any one-time, we’ll be working with numerous players across our innovation ecosystem on diverse project from research collaborations to branding and visibility networking, to developing the next generation of start-ups.”
“The key to building successful long-term relationships with our industry partners has four elements,” continues Dr. Giezendanner-Thoben. “Creating trust, alignment with our partners’ businesses strategies and objectives, well managed relationships, and a little dose of serendipity!”
Four ingredients to a successful industry-academia partnership
For Dr. Giezendanner-Thoben, building trust between the institution and its partners is critical to success. “This trust takes time to build,” he explains. “Years, in some cases. Having a system to manage these relationships is key. Both partners need to understand the best way to work with each other and how to get the most out of the relationship.”
For any successful partnership, there needs to be an alignment in purpose. The objectives and vision of each partner needs to be clear so we can ensure everyone’s working in the right direction.
To facilitate these conversations, EPFL has put in place a series of steering committees which anchor industry partnerships at an executive and operational level. These governance boards ensure collaborations are aligned with each business’ objectives, as well as putting in place regular review and evolution where needed. Alongside this, is a dedicated account management service for each partnership. These specialists (key account managers) have extensive experience across different industry domains and at the same time are plugged into the heart of the EPFL ecosystem (e.g. labs, startups, companies, experts and talents).
“Our account manager connects us with labs, EPFL initiatives such as sustainability or cybersecurity, and even start-ups that can contribute to our endeavours. They are our eyes and ears in a rich and diverse ecosystem of academics and start-ups,” says Jean-Michel Chardon, Head of AI, CTO Office and site leader at Logitech.
The institution has also developed bespoke tools to help identify potential collaboration opportunities and align them with existing and future business needs. “Well-managed relationships are crucial,” explains Dr. Giezendanner-Thoben “Having regular, open conversations and meetings with our industry partners is instrumental to build opportunities that are aligned with their strategic needs, as well as to take advantage of unexpected ones when they arise.”
“I think this is where serendipity comes into it,” he adds. “Being at the Innovation Park increases the probability of meeting the right people for game-changing ideas. What makes this possible is the simultaneous locations of companies, start-ups, students and leading researchers, in the same campus.”
Sharing this common space – with EPFL’s best-in-class facilities and inquisitive minds – sparks meaningful interactions and sapient innovation.
EPFL’s approach to strategic partnerships has been honed over the past 25 years and refined through numerous collaborations with industry. “Today, we have a 100% occupancy rate of some of the most exciting businesses and technology. Our rigorous selection process ensures we continue to work with organisations that share our ethos and passion for world-changing technology,” continues Dr. Matteini.
What’s next for industry-academia partnerships?
“We have developed K-NOVA, a one year accelerator program for strategic partnerships that increase the efficiency of industry-academia interactions on all fronts,” explains Dr. Matteini.
This program gives to students and researchers easy access to potential partners for their endeavours, that being research, startup, or career opportunities. At the same time K-NOVA industry partners test during one year the value of EPFL ecosystem in nurturing and developing their innovation projects. We live in a new era. If society and industry really want to solve the most pressing issues we face, it can only be done so via strategic relationships with leading research institutions.
Source: EPFL Vice Presidency for Innovation