European universities tentatively embrace working with industry

Recent decades have seen attitudes to working with industry shift in Europe, but the difficulty of reaching smaller companies and a lack of incentives to bridge the gap are stifling progress

October 13, 2022
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Amid growing global competition, Europe’s universities continue to lead the world in many areas of research. But when it comes to shepherding good ideas to market, academic conservatism and structural issues still seem to get in the way.

Between 2018 and 2023, the world average score for industry income increased from 43.4 to 49.1, a rise of about 6 points; in Europe, the rise was 45.0 to 49.4, a smaller increase of around 4, showing that the continent is lagging behind when it comes to working with business. Given European institutions’ high performance in other areas, why is working with industry their Achilles heel?

The strength of industry links varies widely between countries, often mirroring the maturity of research systems and economic development. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany sit comfortably at the top of the table, with the first scoring almost double the figure for Azerbaijan, Georgia or Malta, which make up the bottom.

Considering the age of many European systems, is it possible that Europe has an attitude problem when it comes to working with industry, inherited from a time in which a monastic academia sat detached from society? Where the pursuit of knowledge was at odds with earthly concerns such as income and costs?

Donato Iacobucci, professor of applied economics at Italy’s Marche Polytechnic University, says he still sees some “cultural resistance” to working with companies even though there have been “dramatic” changes in attitudes over the past 20 years, citing the example of his local University of Macerata (UNIMC), founded in 1290, which recently changed its motto to “humanities for innovation”. He points out that “universities in Europe were historically mainly based on humanities”, which are not as obvious industry bedfellows as science- and tech-focused institutions.

In summer 2021, the European University Association (EUA) surveyed its members about their innovation activities. Peter Haring Bolívar, a professor at the University of Siegen and chair of the EUA’s innovation expert group, says it was “surprised” that three-quarters of responding universities had both an innovation agenda and an action plan.

“Twenty years ago, some of the older colleagues even considered it a bad style to cooperate with industry, because the purity of science is disrupted. This ivory tower thinking is completely gone,” he says.

Although more academics may be minded to work with industry, Europe still faces serious barriers to following through on its ambitions.

Most of the experts Times Higher Education spoke to say a lack of incentives for institutions or individuals to work with industry is the main problem. There are pockets of stimulus – Italy’s national evaluation agency now hands out a small portion of university funding based on technology transfer performance, for example – but Iacobucci says the disciplinary panels that evaluate individual researchers still look only at publications.

Another oft-cited European problem is the predominance of small and medium-sized companies and a lack of bodies to link them to academia. “You need businesses which are capable of absorbing innovations,” says Marja Makarow, a professor emerita at the University of Helsinki and a board member of the European Union’s European Innovation Council, which gives commercialisation grants to researchers.

She says Europe has a “huge problem” staffing university technology transfer offices with the expensive specialists needed to work with smaller companies. In Estonia, a lack of intermediary agencies to foster connections forces innovators to found start-ups instead of linking up with existing companies.

Leonard Hobbs, director of research and innovation at Trinity College Dublin, says smaller companies tend to think shorter term and want to work on low-cost projects, while the highest-flying principal investigators are less inclined to work with smaller companies because they can get the funding they need elsewhere.

Unlike peers in the US, academics and companies in Europe also have smaller domestic markets to ply their wares or ideas. “Your ability to scale to a large market is not as seamless,” says Hobbs, referring to the “country-first” mindset of Europeans as a “soft inhibitor”, despite EU efforts to lift cross-border barriers to goods and services.

But there are those in Europe who have overcome many of these issues. Among them is KU Leuven Research & Development, set up in 1972 by academics from the Belgian university who had been doctoral students in the US.

Over its 50 years, the self-funding technology transfer office has won “full strategic, financial and operational autonomy” from the university, says Koenraad Debackere, its executive director. “You need a lot of entrepreneurial activity to be possible, and this does not always coincide with the hierarchical structure within a university,” he explains. Becoming autonomous gave them the flexibility to hire specialist staff and make deals on intellectual property, which is more difficult when working within the constraints of universities with government funding that comes with strict provisions.

One of the office’s big successes is the anti-HIV drug tenofovir, a collaboration between a chemist in what was then Czechoslovakia, a virologist in Leuven and a junior chief scientific officer at a major pharmaceutical company. The last agreed with his employer to pass the licence for the in-development drug to his collaborators. “This was a pure gentleman’s agreement,” says Debackere, adding that the “astoundingly informal” collaboration between the three scientists required trust and understanding across the academia-business divide.


A quite different entity designed to ease industry links is Automotive Center Südwestfalen, a company set up by Siegen’s Haring Bolívar and jointly owned with local Mittelstand companies (the German concept of long-lived and often family-owned firms that underpin the country’s engineering-heavy industries).

“People both in academia and industry tend to be scared to lose control, but if you really want to interact you have to get the humans to work on an everyday basis with each other,” says Haring Bolívar, adding that the idea for a shared, neutral structure for technology transfer was borrowed from the US and Japan and is generally in an “infant state” in Europe.

The diversity of universities and their environments means each must choose its own approach to working with industry. What is cutting edge in some countries may be quickly outgrown in those with bigger and better opportunities.

In Spain, a morass of bureaucracy means that PhD placements within companies are a simple and efficient option for building mutual understanding. Helena Ramalhinho Lourenço, lead for social science transfer at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, says the two-page forms needed to set up an industrial PhD are a breeze compared with standard public grant agreements.

In contrast, the University of Helsinki’s Makarow says short-term agreements between European universities and companies have in the past been “absolutely devastating” for the doctoral students involved because they are kept away from the fundamental work that would be best for their careers.

Relationships also develop differently. Trinity College Dublin’s work with the US chipmaker Intel began when the latter wanted specially trained graduates for its Irish operations, before growing to cover research. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) has long held research agreements with hundreds of companies, but now updates them to cover cooperation in education.

“We want a strategic collaboration so it’s possible to discuss at the top level where we want to go, what is needed and how can we deliver students with competencies for their companies,” says Toril Hernes, the university’s vice-president for innovation.

One of NTNU’s biggest partners is Norway’s state-owned oil company Equinor, which is looking for greener sources of energy. “Every company needs to have sustainability in the forefront, [but] many don’t know how to make their business sustainable,” she says.

Working with industry can create knowledge, improve teaching and serve society. Many European academics have broken the taboo, they just need a little push to consummate the relationship.

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