Research and technological innovation are the main drivers of sustainable development. The European Union has among its objectives to promote a knowledge society and a more competitive and sustainable economy thanks to research and technological innovation. We talked about these issues with Carlos Jimenez Haertel,Independent Industry Advisor, Chairman of the Supervisory Board at GE Power and member of ESOF2020 Science to Business Committee.
Private and public sectors are increasingly in synergy for the search for sustainable technological solutions. In your opinion what steps should be taken to make this synergy even more functional?
There are indeed good examples of effective research and technology co-developments by universities or public research organizations and private companies. But these are still the exception rather than the rule, I’m afraid. The cultural divide that kept these sectors from closely engaging with each other for a long time is still there. Academic researchers tend to worry about undue constraints and potential loss of freedom when working with the private sector; companies, on the other hand, doubt that academics have the pragmatism and sense of urgency needed to drive outcomes. In my own experience, however, such attitudes are based more often on prepossession than actual experience. Changing the game will require us to rethink career models for both academic researchers and practitioners of R&D. The best way to build bridges between public and private sector is through a more frequent and deliberate exchange of personnel. There’s a role for governments, by the way, which can support the respective exchanges by individual grants or fellowships. Some programs have elements of it, like the excellent Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions; but there’s still lots of room for improvement.
European legislation encourages the creation of startups, academic spinoffs and open innovation actions. How could greater collaboration between the public and private sectors improve these areas?
In the pursuit of technology-driven innovation, you have to start from two ends: first, you need differentiated technology that opens up new applications or helps accomplish a given end more effectively. And, second, you need a business model that translates novel concepts into profitable new products or services. The public sector is strong in feeding the technology pipeline thanks to its investments in fundamental research. The business side, on the other hand, is strong in understanding market needs and application requirements. Combining the two in systematic ways multiplies the chances of placing the best possible bets and getting innovation right first time. Not to be misunderstood, I’m not at all advocating for putting start-ups, academic spinoffs etc. under some sort of ‘patronage’ of the private sector. Quite to the contrary, the independence of early-stage ventures is essential to keep them fast and flexible. What I’m recommending is that public research organizations engage with the private sector more proactively to better understand what it takes to win in the market place.
With particular regard to the energy sector, so important given the environmental and climate change issue, what are the major challenges that the public and private sector will have to face from the point of view of technology transfer, by virtue of the specific expertise?
The energy sector – and I’m speaking primarily of electricity here – is probably the most interdependent and most complex system that our modern society has created. In fact, it’s a system of systems where not one part can be altered without regard for all other parts. Add to it the political dimension of security and affordability of supply, and you get a sense of the scale and criticality of what we’re facing on our way to decarbonizing the energy space. One consequence of this particular situation is that the systems expertise is almost entirely with the private sector today, which is developing, building, and operating the large assets that make up our electricity infrastructure. Still, the unique talent and the creativity that public research organizations have to offer are absolutely needed to deal with the challenges that lie ahead of us. So it may not come as a surprise that we find some of the most effective public-private partnerships, research consortia, or university-industry collaborations in the energy sector. However, to safeguard the successful models of cooperation we’ve got today, we need to ensure that public and private sector maintain a similar understanding of future priorities.
Why is ESOF the place to talk about the relationship between science and business?
There are many specialized conferences and workshops, which make great platforms to discuss this relationship in the context of specific challenges and opportunities. You could call this the tactical side of the dialogue, focused on concrete deliverables. However, the important strategic discussion we must have today is the one that explores roles and responsibilities of science and business in light of societal needs in a much more fundamental manner. Such a discussion you can only have with an audience as broad and diverse as the set of stakeholders in this dialogue is. Nothing compares to ESOF when it comes to giving academia, industry, investors and policy makers from all trades and backgrounds a place to meet and mingle, to hear from each other and to exchange views. It’s the perfect place for science and business to talk.