A warm welcome to École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of UIIN’s newest organisational members! We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Robert Giezendanner-Thoben, Head of Operations and Corporate Relations at the Vice Presidency for Innovation at EPFL and we are excited to introduce the UIIN community to this innovative institution.
Being a relatively young institution, EPFL has steadily gained both national and global recognition, putting itself on the map as a key player for innovation. EPFL’s focus on creating links between industry and academia has resulted in a large innovation boost over the last 10-15 years, in which they not only saw their global rankings increase, but also their collaborations with industry. A good reason to further explore their approach, experiences, and goals in university-industry engagement and share with the UIIN community.
Before Robert’s arrival three years ago, EPFL’s approach towards industry collaborations was mostly reactive, partly due to a need for more liaison officers. His recent years have therefore been focused on the development of a more strategic approach that involves understanding the needs of companies to connect them with the right academics and the broader EPFL ecosystem. An approach much needed since EPFL is home to 350 research labs, several interdisciplinary centres, and >200 companies based at the EPFL Innovation Park.
Leading a successful innovation park while growing in reputation also brings its challenges. A practical issue being for instance the need for more space, which takes time and resources. Instead of focusing on this barrier, EPFL has taken this opportunity to explore new business models and ways to work with industry without long-term hosting at the park. This has led to the development of the ‘KNOVA’ program, a discovery-focused incubator program which is about to be launched this April.
KNOVA, named after an astronomical event called “Kilonova” in which two neutron stars merge into each other and generate precious metals, perfectly symbolises EPFL’s efforts to collide industry and academia in this new program. As part of KNOVA, companies have the opportunity to test the ecosystem and collaboration for a year while making use of a dedicated KNOVA-space, services and talent at EPFL. An essential requirement for EPFL to host companies is that it is not just a space transaction, but there is true collaboration with EPFL. To maintain the connections after the term is over, a KNOVA-alumni program is being created that keeps the ties warm until EPFL has expanded enough space to offer companies, who want to stay geographically close, a more permanent spot on the park. The first participant has signed up already, and we look forward to seeing how KNOVA evolves.
Another strong focus for EPFL is transferring technology to society and building a value chain to make the transfer easier and more efficient. To facilitate this process, Robert highlights the importance of following projects through from start to finish, and having intermediaries involved to support the collaboration.
“Putting academic relation partners in place on both sides is key”, tells Robert. One of the biggest challenges can be misunderstanding or loss in translation, and therefore ensuring effective and clear communication from both parties is essential. Robert recognises that there is still a lot of work to be done on both ends – for universities, this involves exploring ways to present yourself as an institution in an attractive and efficient way, and act as this connector and facilitator to connect industry to the right partner. And for industry, it is important to have the right people working at the interface, who understand academia and can support companies to engage with universities.
“It’s not just about inventing new things – make the best use of what’s in place and inter-connect them, and make it as simple as possible!”
EPFL’s vision when it comes to university-industry engagement is clear: “It should be a win/win for all, whether we talk about the university, large companies, SMEs or start-ups”. EPFL wants to be top-notch in industry-academia collaboration, while constantly innovating and transferring technology from lab to society. Innovation is embedded in the core mission of the institution with a focus on bringing talent to society, supporting start-ups, and undertaking joint R&D with industry.
In the spirit of innovation, EPFL is constantly looking at new ways to simplify the processes and make the cooperation as efficient as possible, whether it is supporting and educating companies to find the right partners – even when that is not EPFL itself – or developing more tools and frameworks to support the translation of technology.
We asked Robert for his advice to others when it comes to university-industry collaboration: “You can’t copy-paste collaboration approaches – what works for one company or university doesn’t necessarily work for all”. Every university and company has its own ways of dealing with these challenges. And that is why EPFL is looking forward to connecting with other members in the UIIN network, to share the experiences and to learn how others have navigated their challenges.
“We’re always looking to test new tools and methods to find what is working well or what we are missing, and we are happy to be challenged at our approach!”
Want to learn more about EPFL or share any thoughts?
Get in contact with Dr. Robert Giezendanner-Thoben by email: Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org