19 October 2009 00:00 [Source: ICB]
Universities provide a low-risk route to assessing technologies and proving feasibility
Collaborating with universities can help companies cut their product development times, reduce risk when developing new technologies and find new recruits.
Universities can provide the expertise required to verify whether a new idea is a good idea, and can cut the cost of inevitable failures, says Susan Ehrlich, business director for renewable technologies at US-based specialty chemical company W.R. Grace.
"We leverage their competencies and their equipment to prove the feasibility of something, before we go and make an investment to purchase that type of equipment or hire that type of expertise," she says. "If we were to do it ourselves, we'd have to hire the person, hire the technician, build the equipment, find the lab. And if it's not successful, you've wasted all that money."
Partnerships with academia provide access to new scientific knowledge, expertise and facilities, which are fundamental for companies that want to be competitive on a global scale in developing high-value products, asserts Colin Tattam, director of projects at Chemistry Innovation, a UK government-funded initiative that encourages knowledge transfer between universities and companies.
Developing products that can be differentiated from those of the competition is particularly important for companies in the UK and Europe. "We're not going to be successful just producing the high-volume, low-margin products because these are increasingly shifting to lower-cost nations such as China and India," says Tattam. "We need to be more successful at developing clever products that are knowledge intensive and can command a price premium. A fundamental part of that knowledge intensity is getting the academic expertise and access to the facilities that exist within universities."
Forging relationships with universities can also play an important part in companies' recruitment strategies," he continues. "We need to make sure there is a pool of people with the right skills and academic strengths to continue to work in these specialist jobs within industry."
"Forming partnerships gets you there quicker"
Susan Ehrlich, business director, W.R Grace
Grace operates an internship program that has helped it recruit new staff during challenging times. The company has been operating under bankruptcy protection since April 2001, as it seeks to restructure liabilities related to asbestos products.
Under the program, Grace offers internships to undergraduates studying chemistry or chemical engineering and master of business administration (MBA) students.
"It's a good way for us to assess students, as well as for the students to assess whether they want to work for Grace," remarks Ehrlich. "It's a low-risk method on both sides."
Dow Chemical also sees university collaborations as a key route to attracting new staff. US-based Dow is establishing a research and development (R&D) center in Saudi Arabia in partnership with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which the company says will help develop and train Saudi talent. KAUST president Choon Fong Shih states: "We are excited by the prospect of having KAUST graduates hired by Dow here in Saudi Arabia,"
The R&D center is part of Saudi Arabia's plans to integrate research produced at KAUST into the economy, Shih said when announcing the new project last month. The center is expected to be completed by the end of 2010, and will focus initially on research into water treatment.
Grace has established relationships with universities located principally in the US and Germany, where its two main research facilities are located. The company's renewables business, which develops catalysts and adsorbents for the conversion of renewable feedstock to fuels and chemicals, is benefiting from such partnerships, says Ehrlich. "[Renewables] is a new area for us. We don't have a lot of the infrastructure to do the evaluations yet," she explains.
The company uses the Center for Applied Catalysis at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, US, for testing and evaluating catalysts in different reactions. "If we don't have that type of capability in-house, it gives us a way to start the research before we have the infrastructure internally," says Ehrlich. "It's a very low-risk way to study the feasibility, and gives us a lot more credibility when we talk to customers."
In Germany, the University of Bonn conducted a project for Grace to evaluate a catalyst that helps convert natural plant and seed oils into biodiesel, while the Fraunhofer Institute helped develop a method for making biomass easier to process. Grace says both projects resulted in invention disclosures.
"We need to make sure there is a pool of people"
Colin Tattam, director of projects, Chemistry Innovation
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
As well as working with individual universities, companies are forming consortia involving industry and academia to collaborate on specific research areas. Grace has joined the US-based Renewable Energy Institute International (REII), an alliance of industry, academic and government organizations that plans to build a demonstration pilot plant to convert non-food biomass to clean diesel fuel. The company is also a member of the Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization, which is developing methods for extracting oil from algae.
Joining the REII gives Grace fast access to new biomass conversion technologies, says Ehrlich. "This is a quicker way to get into this space than if we tried to do it ourselves. We're experts on the catalyst side but we know nothing about the gasification or taking the biomass and putting it into the refinery."
In the UK, the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC) is one of Chemistry Innovation's major projects. The KCMC is a partnership between industry and four research institutions that aims to drive innovation in the chemistry-using industries by the application of materials chemistry. Launched in March 2009, the project is expected to create more than 200 new collaborations in materials chemistry.
Companies involved in the KCMC include global consumer products giant Unilever, global pharmaceuticals firm AstraZeneca, UK polymers company Victrex and SAFC Hitech, a division of US-based Sigma-Aldritch, and research interests range from formulated products and electronics to biologically relevant and multifunctional materials, according to John Conti-Ramsden, KCMC's director.
"Many universities are sitting on their high horses"
Friedrich Berschauer, chairman, Bayer CropScience
Another method for accessing knowledge is the "open innovation" concept, which enables companies to draw on expertise outside the company when seeking solutions to specific technical challenges. For example, when Grace posted a request for help with a waste minimization project on the website of US open innovation service provider NineSigma, it received 28 responses from academia and industry representatives around the world within two months, says company spokesman Greg Euston. "Of the 28, we have begun to work with six on proposed solutions, including three from universities in the US and Asia Pacific," he adds.
Establishing partnerships with universities is not always straightforward. Universities are not always willing to cooperate with industry, observes Friedrich Berschauer, chairman of Germany-based Bayer CropScience.
"It's rather frustrating because many universities, specifically in Europe, are sitting on their high horses. They believe that industry would not work scientifically."
Bayer CropScience cooperates with universities around the world, and in July signed a long-term agreement with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to expand global research and development in cereal seeds and traits.
Berschauer admits that he had a similar impression of industry when he was at university in Germany, and was initially reluctant to join Bayer. "I had exactly the same mentality as many European universities," he says. Universities in the US are more open to forming partnerships with industry, he adds.
Navigating laws governing the ownership of inventions in different countries can also be problematic. Germany's "inventor law" under which ownership of inventions has to be clearly defined up front, can make it more difficult to negotiate initial agreements, says Ehrlich. She notes that up-front agreements in the US are less restrictive. "It took us almost a year to negotiate our agreements in Germany versus a few months in the US."
Ultimately, in a global market, companies need to identify which universities have relevant strengths and capabilities in particular areas and the research has to be cost effective. This means that countries such as the UK, which historically has a strong research base, could struggle to compete with lower-cost regions such as Asia.
"If you are a company that accepts standing still isn't an option in terms of remaining competitive, then working with universities in those areas is a critical component of developing new products and processes," stresses Ehrlich. "Forming partnerships gets you there quicker. Instead of having to invent everything yourself, you bring in the experts who already have that capability."
EDUCATION & RECRUITMENT CAMPAIGN
ICIS Chemical Business's new education and recruitment campaign aims to spark interest among students in pursuing a career in the chemicals sector. The industry is not attracting enough new recruits, despite promises of lucrative salaries and global travel. Wages compare favorably with other industries, with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in the US, for example, citing chemical engineering as the second highest-earning degree after petroleum engineering.
For decades, the industry has been blighted by a negative public image, and even though things are improving, many students still do not see this sector as an attractive career choice.
There have been efforts over the past few years to target youngsters through schools and colleges to encourage them to make this their chosen vocation, and there are initial signs that graduate chemical engineers are no longer migrating to the potentially more lucrative sectors of IT and finance, instead deciding to concentrate on their core discipline.
Schools have been striving to make science and engineering more exciting, while chemical producers are increasing investment in internships, apprenticeships and in-house training programs.
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