Developing an innovation culture
Innovation is a buzzword that is frequently used by politicians, business people and the media, and not just in Switzerland. Its meaning is however not always clear. For the Adolphe Merkle Institute Associate Director and Head of Knowledge and Technology Transfer Dr. Marc Pauchard, innovation is more than just new products.
Innovation means many different things to different people. How do you define innovation at the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI)?
Marc Pauchard: The word “innovative” is often used to describe an original or unexpected solution to a problem. This can be everything from a new diet to a new way a city tackles traffic problems. In the context of companies, innovation means the successful transformation of a new idea or technology into something of real value to a customer, enough at least to convince that customer to pay for it. This allows the company to generate revenues that cover its costs and finance the development of new products. AMI plays a very specific role at the beginning of this chain as we don’t develop or sell products. Our contributions are knowledge, expertise and technology that can support or stimulate innovation.
To what extent is the AMI involved with industry? What effect does it have on the research activities?
Every year, we talk with over 30 companies from around the world. They approach us first because they are convinced that the institute might help them innovate. We learn about their needs, competences, challenges and new ideas. Ideally, AMI can contribute to potential solutions and we then agree with the companies on research collaborations. Our competences are best used if the project is organized so that the collaboration generates more than just the expected results outlined at the beginning. An academic research institute like ours is ideally positioned to investigate novel concepts. We work for example on adhesives, but instead of tweaking known products and improving their properties by a small amount, we investigate completely new concepts. We are for example developing adhesives that can be switched between sticky and non-sticky by exposing them to ultraviolet light and other stimuli. This type of project can lead to radical innovations for the companies involved and contribute simultaneously to the general growth of knowledge, which is in line with the mission of our institute.
Does that mean the AMI is focused solely on working with companies?
The institute strives to carry out fundamental and application-oriented research that matters and has an impact. Working with companies or creating start-up companies is one important way of adding value to our research, but not the only one. Most of our research projects do not involve industrial funding.
How do you square the AMI concept of innovation with academic settings where working with private third parties is not always welcomed or understood?
One important outcome at AMI is successfully training young people, because they are the workforce of the future. As most of them will work for companies after their PhD or postdoc, it is very important for them to understand at an early stage how companies operate and to develop their personal network outside of academia.
The primary goal of most research projects is to learn and understand; in this respect we are not different to any other academic research entity. But we are convinced that besides increasing scientific knowledge, we can use our results to have a wider impact. One way of achieving this is to work with companies that deliver direct value to customers. Another possibility is to work with authorities, non-profit organizations or foundations. Here we do not contribute towards the creation of new products, but for example by helping to establishing new protocols such as in vitro tests that could replace animal studies as well as defining guidelines and standards.
A common misunderstanding is that working with private parties will restrain the freedom of research or infringe on scientists’ independence. At AMI we have clear values and ethical standards and will not compromise them. This ensures that we work with the right partners on the right projects.
It seems that innovation is also a state of mind at the AMI. How do you transmit that idea to the students?
Innovation is bringing a successful product on the market. It’s not simple to help students understand this when they are not immersed in this process every day. We do our best to get them involved in discussions with industry partners and support their projects when it comes to securing intellectual property or presenting research results to an audience outside of the scientific community.
The most important question is always “how can this create value?” Students are very open-minded about this. The most important step is that they broaden their horizon and understand the basic principles that lead from research to application.
How does the institute try to contribute to innovation culture in Fribourg?
What is true for our students is also true for almost all other students in Fribourg. Innovation is the result of many factors coming together. The successful interplay between technical, design, commercial, organizational and other aspects is crucial for a successful innovation process. So, innovation is a truly multidisciplinary field, where people must learn to overcome barriers and to collaborate efficiently.
Together with like-minded people, we recently founded the Association for Student Innovation (ASI) with professors, students and other key stakeholders to support inter-institutional activities in this field. We want to tear down the walls between disciplines and make people interact more. But to avoid an institutional perspective, we decided to create an independent association, where only personal membership is possible and hierarchies or politics play no role. It’s about the people who want to change something independently of their status or affiliation.
The most important initiative today is the “Innovation Club”, which is becoming the main community in Fribourg where students and interested other people meet and interact. I am convinced that with all the initiatives and talent in Fribourg, we have the critical mass to stimulate great new innovations. What we need now is to get them together and enable them. The students must realize what opportunities they have, but they also need role models and support to make the switch from being learners to actors.