Sondre Jacobsen (CEO InnSep AS, far left) in the NTNU laboratories discussing the challenges of bridging the gap between basic research and commercial applications of clean technology with Johan Hustad (Pro-Rector for Innovation at NTNU, far right) and Tore Sandvik (County Mayor, second from right). Picture courtesy of NTNU
The economic downturn has brutally communicated that current solutions to both financial and environmental challenges are not sufficient. We must be able to perform more and achieve better results, with fewer costs, less energy and less environmental impact. This has been the primary driving force for innovation since the wheel was invented.
Add dedicated innovation funding and support into the process and the stage is set for the possibility of an unprecedented increase in innovation in Europe. More and more people face adaptation to changes by taking charge of their own situation, their own competence and by driving innovative ideas. In Norway, the downturn in the oil prices has released a large amount of highly skilled personnel from the oil industry. Many have become innovators and entrepreneurs, using their skills to take charge of and develop solutions.
Pioneering new technology drives the progress towards a cleaner environment and a sustainable future. Universities around the world represent many of the major achievements and advances in clean technology by performing the basic research that is the all important foundation of applied research. But the transition from university basic research and concepts to profitable business is difficult and littered with failures.
Failures are in many cases attributed to a few main factors:
- Underestimating the required R&D time;
- Not understanding the market demands; and
- Insufficient funding to handle point one and two above
How can this be solved? How does the Norwegian University of Technology and Science in Trondheim work with industrial companies and businesses to avoid these factors?
Early termination of unfeasible innovation projects frees resources to focus on other commercially viable R&D projects.
At the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (www.ntnu.edu) commercialisation of basic and applied research is planned with experienced project managers situated at the university technology transfer office, NTNU Technology Transfer AS (www.tto.ntnu.no). The main task is to identify the necessary steps in the research and development process and associate every step with a clear milestone and IP rights. The milestones represent a decision point on whether the project should continue for commercialization, with commercial partners, or be terminated. Sometimes the project staff will discover that the R&D requirements will exceed the available funding, rendering the process unfeasible.
When a disruptive technology is introduced, skilled personnel may refuse to take the risk and decide to stick to ‘business as usual’. Risk averse industries will have professionals that are used to a certain regime of technology where incremental innovation is preferred. It is not uncommon to be met with the demand of several years’ operational time before a purchase is possible. In a sense, achieving operation time is a part of the R&D process. If the R&D project plan and milestones do not reflect this, the result may be a developed product, but without a market or sufficient funding.
Disruptive innovation requires knowledge, experience and funding in close collaboration to succeed. The special model employed at the Department of Energy and Process Engineering at NTNU allows private companies to access labs at significantly lower rates when the goal is to perform innovative research projects with commercial potential, environmental impact and publication opportunities.
Success is not only in the result itself, but in what the process generates
Private companies are the critical drivers of innovation; they are the front lines of the commercialisation necessary for the innovation to survive. With government funding as fuel, industrial actors in Europe have access to unlimited research results. Success is difficult, but the risk is greatly reduced when academia and industry manage to co-operate.
At NTNU, the partnerships with industry results in win-win scenarios for all parties. The private company completes the partnership with a stake in the generated IP and the valuable knowledge necessary to succeed with the technology. The university retains the lab and equipment and can continue to perform experiments and research in related areas. Society benefits from new technology and solutions made available to end-users. Finally, successful commercialisation usually entails increased earnings for the company and, thereby, increased tax income for the governments.
The model of commercialisation at NTNU stimulates industries to take a more active role in innovation. It has enabled InnSep AS to take part in research developments that otherwise would have ended up in a publication on a library shelf, and research operations to be moved from the scientific community and into the core operations of the company, generating value in shared information and experiences. At the time of writing, InnSep and NTNU, with other industrial partners, have collaborated to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing the maritime industry: How to clean exhaust emissions efficiently from ships. It is a long road, but with government funding and university creativity, knowledge and scientific methods, the solutions are gradually coming into focus. Together with industry knowledge and the experience of industrial partners, this gives the best possible success factors for the forthcoming innovations.
For more information on NTNU: http://www.ntnu.edu
For more information on NTNU Technology Transfer Office: http://www.tto.ntnu.no
This editorial was written for Pan European Networks publication, higlighting the role of innovation in developing clean technology: http://www.paneuropeannetworks.com/special-reports/financial-crisis-and-the-role-of-innovation/