A University-Industry Membership Program: The Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI) Industry and Society Membership Program

Mirella Lähteenmäki
Aalto University

Terhi Kajaste
Aalto University

Company partnership programs have become increasingly popular in universities during the 21st century. Almost every self-respecting university has adopted some kind of collaboration models in order to support university-industry collaboration, manage company partnerships and finance activities.

Company partnership programs typically vary from ‘top down’ university-wide programs focusing in networking, recruiting and branding opportunities to ‘bottom-up’ research-oriented collaboration models with a more specific focus theme. Whereas university-wide programs have become common with several successful examples from all over the world, research-oriented models seem to be more difficult to implement, as company interests do not necessarily match researchers’ needs nor time frame.

In this paper, our purpose is to describe a research-oriented membership program from a practitioner's perspective. The Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI) Industry and Society Membership Program (ISMP) was established in January 2018 as a joint initiative of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki in the area of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In June 2018, VTT Technical Research Center of Finland joined FCAI as a 3rd founding partner. All parties have a long history in research collaboration.

In 2017, AI had become a ‘hot topic’ and there was wide interest in the industry to understand how AI affects their business and what are the disruptions ahead. The professors of the discipline received increasing amounts of collaboration requests. At the same time, the Finnish Government initiated Finland’s AI Program with the aim of turning Finland into a leading country in the application of AI. Also, a significant flagship funding instrument was launched to fund high-quality research and impact clusters that will further contribute to increasing the quality and impact of research. These impact requirements have been guiding the development of FCAI toward closer collaboration with industry and society.

The main problem at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki was to turn wide company interest into long-term, purposeful relationships benefiting both industry and faculty. Challenges included different needs of researchers and companies as well as the long time needed to find mutual research interests. As a solution, a membership program, namely FCAI ISMP, was established. Now, one year later, the FCAI ISMP has proved being a successful program with promising collaboration and satisfied company members and researchers.

The FCAI ISMP is open for any organization strategically committed to AI and interested in working on FCAI’s research agenda . Collaboration possibilities cover research activities, technology transfer, recruitment, and knowledge exchange. The members form the core of FCAI, surrounded by a larger ecosystem of academic actors, and private and public sectors, both nationally and internationally.

The FCAI ISMP membership fee is 25,000 €/year. Benefits include matchmaking and knowledge sharing services with students and researchers, larger events and a member bulletin. In addition, each member gets an academic contact person, supporting and facilitating research collaboration. The academic contacts receive monetary incentives, which they can use to advance FCAI objectives and promote collaboration between companies and academics.

The FCAI ISMP has been so far successful. The first member joined the program in December 2017. Now there are several members, mainly large companies in the areas of IT and telecommunications (Elisa, Huawei, Nokia, NVIDIA, Reaktor, Tieto), finance (OP), health (Orion, Planmeca) and manufacturing (Cargotec, SAAB, Wärtsilä). The City of Espoo is also a member. Other companies, generally small ones, can join the ecosystem for a small fee (or even without any fee), facilitating the creation of new public-private partnerships and B2B-relationships.

In this practitioner’s paper, we shall describe in detail the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence Industry and Society Membership Program and the experiences and results of the first year of running the program and providing related membership services. We shall also outline some thoughts on how to develop the program and the FCAI ecosystem in order to ensure meeting the FCAI’s impact goals.