Bridging the gap between academia and industry at the European Synchrotron
Research infrastructures (RI) exist in a unique position that can facilitate joint projects bridging the gap between academia and industry. However, the mystery of an RI’s status and raison d’être leaves many potential collaborators wondering where there is a catch and what services and products are for sale. In reality, the RIs are there to boost European innovation for academia and industry alike. Opportunities for collaboration are particularly beneficial to the partners because the infrastructures exist primarily to serve their needs. This message is often difficult to convey, in particular to industry. The challenge therefore is to reach out to industry, to co-design and develop services with them that are useful to both academia and industry.
Many European research infrastructures are funded by a number of European states and have the purpose of providing advanced research facilities to academia and industry. The European Synchrotron (ESRF), located in France, is funded by 22 countries, mostly from Europe but also further afield. Its purpose is to provide the users of the facility, around 9000 scientists annually, with brilliant X-rays delivered to its 44 laboratories, each optimised for cutting-edge research in domains including materials science, biochemistry, nanotechnology, archaeology, cultural heritage and many more. It is a not-for-profit company and considered as an academic institute by the European Commission. In practice, for collaborative projects, the company resembles a research department at a university. It has dedicated laboratories for research areas such as structural biology and soft matter. These laboratories are populated by PhD students and post-doctoral researchers, typically preparing samples that will eventually be studied using the X-ray facilities, which are called beamlines. Many of these young scientists work on projects in collaboration with universities throughout Europe and beyond, and many of their projects are sponsored by industry.
Situating this European facility within the local, national and European political environments remains a challenge. Within Grenoble, our visibility has been enhanced by the creation of the GIANT Innovation Campus that encompasses the university, national research laboratories, a business school, industrial companies, and two European research infrastructures, including the ESRF. Bringing these institutes together with regional companies and defining a common brand has increased visibility and acceptance of the facilities within the local network, increasing dialogue, and gradually increasing the number of joint projects between institutes.
The facility is heavily oversubscribed for experiments in the public user programme; proposals are vetted by external experts and less than 50% of the proposals can be accepted. Such use of the facility is free on condition of publication of results. Even travel and accommodation are funded by the facility for scientists from member states, which is a strong benefit in allowing democratised access in particular to researchers from less well-off countries.
Paid services exist for industry, generating around 2 MEur annually. This revenue is used to finance equipment and staff that are dedicated to further industry use. The services most frequently used concern a subset of the portfolio of experiments available at the beamline. This is in part due to the complexity of certain experiments requiring expertise to run them and for interpretation of the results, expertise that many industrialists do not possess or have the time to develop. These problems can be partly overcome by using intermediaries, external experts, supplementing our in-house resources, who guide industry on the choice of experiment and aide in the interpretation of results. Another facilitator is the offer of mail-in services involving online management systems, work-flows to control the experimental sequence, experiment automation and assisted or automatic data analysis. In 2014, the first fully-automated beamline was launched for structural biology, used in combination with a sample mail-in service. To date, this beamline has analysed 56,000 samples, increasing its annual turnover to 17,000 in 2018. Many users from both academia and industry have learnt to trust the system and have obtained excellent results although this has required a change in attitude and culture of the users and clients alike. More services such as this are needed for industry and ideally such services should be co-designed in collaboration with industry. Other experiments are under consideration for future services.
The challenge of reaching out to industry as collaborators and clients of services remains. Most European enterprises are unaware of the opportunities that synchrotron X-rays offer them for their R&D challenges. Initiatives have begun in collaboration with local partners and with extended European networks to offer industry test experiments guided by our experts.
An overview of the approaches to stimulate collaboration between academia and industry and initiatives to attract industry as clients will be presented and key examples of successful collaborations will be described. One programme is InnovaXN, pronounced innovation, an H2020 MSCA co-funded programme that is only just starting. Forty PhD students will be funded jointly by the ESRF and the ILL, its neighbour, a neutron source and another European facility, and H2020 MSCA. Research projects are to be defined by industry partners, who will also co-supervise the students. Industrial partners will be sought to participate, calls for project proposals will be opened in June 2019 and 2020 (see: innovaxn.eu). This programme is one example whereby European industry can be aided by the RIs for pre-competitive research thus boosting European innovation. The training opportunities for the students involved will be exceptional as they should have interesting projects, experience of working in industry (3 months minimum), training in the use of advanced characterisation techniques, and an extensive soft-skills training course. Students will be registered at Univ. Grenoble Alpes (UGA) by default, or another European university if beneficial to a particular project. The students should become the leading researchers of tomorrow, valuable to both industry and academia for their knowledge and experience.