Technology Transfer assists scientists in marketing the results of their research. Dr. Ralf Raue, Head of Technology Transfer, discusses the wide range of tasks and responsibilities involved.
The Best Solution for Each Situation
Technology Transfer (T) builds bridges between Forschungszentrum Jülich and industry. What tasks does this involve?
Our objective is to impart the knowledge generated at Forschungszentrum Jülich to society. This technology transfer is an important part of Jülich’s strategy. As a division, T is responsible, for example, for helping scientists to prepare for the subsequent commercialization of their know-how in cooperation with external partners. Technology transfer itself proceeds in three different ways: the granting of licences, cooperation with companies, and spin-offs.
Researchers and entrepreneurs are interested in different things: one group is in search of knowledge, the other profit maximization. Can these interests be reconciled?
This is just a superficial conflict of interests. Jülich researchers have set themselves the task of finding solutions to the pressing challenges facing society. Putting these research findings into practice and making use of them is firmly rooted in the guiding principles of Forschungszentrum Jülich. The benefit is derived from new products or services, which are in turn created and marketed by innovative companies based on insights emanating from Jülich.
How do you look for partners in industry?
It’s a decision we make on a case-by-case basis. Starting with the actual project, we conduct analyses to select suitable partners – we look at what expertise we need from outside and what company would be the best choice in terms of the research findings. Who can develop a prototype to a marketable product? Who has the necessary qualitative and quantitative production facilities, relevant distribution channels, and the marketing expertise to guarantee success? In many cases, Forschungszentrum Jülich has long-term strategic partnerships which we can also avail of. However, as we are concerned with high-tech areas involving intensive research, there are usually only a few companies that can be taken into consideration.
Is it important whether it’s a medium-sized company or a large consolidated company?
Depending on the task at hand, we work with companies of all sizes. It is in fact these differences and the specific strengths that make a partner interesting. If significant investments are necessary or if complex systems have to be assembled, then large companies can usually deal with this better. In consolidated companies, however, the decision-making processes take longer as they must comply with in-house regulations. In negotiations, we work out how we can work together most effectively. The advantages of smaller companies: they decide faster, are more flexible, and they are highly specialized in one particular field.
The main areas of work at Technology Transfer are licensing, cooperation with companies, and spin-offs from Forschungszentrum Jülich. Do you have priorities within these three areas?
No. The main thing is to find the best solution and to consider the technology in its totality. If a prospective service or a new product directly fits the strategy of an existing company, then we get in contact with them. Sometimes it makes sense for our researchers to set up their own companies. This is the most demanding form of commercialization. The technology, the market, and the company itself have to be developed right from scratch.
Do you apply for public subsidies in the run-up to commercialization?
Of course we do. Cooperation projects with public subsidies offer more than collaboration with competent research partners; they also offer the possibility of finding partners for commercialization of the research findings at a later date. Here, we have a differentiated approach: whether we apply for funding from the European Union, the Federal Republic of Germany or from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia depends on where our external partners are based.
How do you help researchers who require financial support before they approach companies?
This is exactly what the technology transfer funds that we administer are for. The money is used, for example, to finance the certifications or the construction of prototypes. The purpose of both is to develop research findings to such an extent that we can present them to a company and clearly demonstrate what opportunities are associated with them. We can convince potential investors with these measures that the technology is ready for the market and conforms to the requirements. Prototypes that are almost ready as products are built in the extremely efficient workshops at Forschungszentrum Jülich – indeed this is one of our biggest strengths.
What role is played by the Helmholtz Association in terms of technology transfer?
The working group for technology transfer and intellectual property rights meets regularly. At these meetings, the heads of technology transfer divisions in the various Helmholtz Centres exchange experiences, which is very useful. Furthermore, instruments are made available to foster technology transfer – or example, the Helmholtz validation funds.
What challenges must T rise to in the future?
The entire innovation process has undergone a rapid change. Twenty years ago, companies had their own departments in which scientists conducted research behind closed doors. Today, the buzz word is open innovation. Industry has learnt how important it is to work together with independent research institutions. Companies look for the top centres worldwide in their field and conclude strategic partnerships with them. This interesting development opens up many opportunities for Jülich. The challenge is to invest even more effort in ensuring that we are the best in the world in our fields of research – health, energy and environment, information technology, and key technologies. This is the only way that we will remain attractive to external partners.