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Interview with Prof. Thienpont on 'Flipped Tech Transfer - A New Model for Academic Research'


For his upcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry, David Giltner spoke to B-PHOT research director Hugo Thienpont to find out what "flipping the tech transfer model" means. Prof. Thienpont explains his rather uncommon view on industry collaboration and how it was the foundation of our research group B-PHOT at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Giltner published an excerpt from the interview on the website TurningScience.

Interview excerpt

Dave: You have built a unique research group. Can you describe it for us?

Hugo: The real difference between us and other research groups is that we focus not only on fundamental research, and not only on applied research, but we go all the way to building pilot production lines to demonstrate that our technology can be turned into a manufacturable product.

Fundamental research is nice, but that is not going to get you anywhere with industry. Doing applied research is better, and some companies might become interested in what you're doing. But if you can bridge all the technology readiness levels (TRLs) from the fundamental research (TRL 1) all the way to where you demonstrate performance of products built with methods and equipment that is compatible with what is used in industry (TRL7), then you become a one-stop shop for a collaboration partner.

Of course, you don't build that overnight. It took me 40 years to get there, starting from scratch writing proposals trying to get the equipment we needed. From there we grew slowly and steadily by finding good masters students, then PhD students, then building fundamental research theory and modeling capabilities, then adding some experimental facilities, and then moving more and more in the direction of applied research.

Of course, it was important not to neglect the fundamental research as we became more applied, because you need results from fundamental research if you want to continue doing novel things. But you also need technology development on the other side of your applied research to make sure your technology is compatible with manufacturing. If your work is not compatible with production upscaling, industry is not interested.

I learned that lesson very early on. In the beginning, my research group was working on very fast optical transistors and optical switches for novel data communication. We took our ideas to industry, and they said, ‘That's a great idea! Come back when you have a working prototype.’ So, we came back when we had a working prototype, and they said, ‘That’s great, but can that prototype be mass produced?’ It was then that we understood that the technology we develop must be manufacturable in order to be valuable to industry.

We’ve found the best approach is to support industry all the way up to the highest level where they will accept your help, and that is usually pilot production. If you develop a design, do it with the manufacturing already in mind. If possible, get industry involved halfway through the process to get their guidance on what is needed for manufacturability. Don't just build a prototype and leave the problems of upscaling to other people.

So often, one research group develops the first proof of concept demonstrator, then maybe another group develops a prototype, and then that prototype is taken to an engineering company for upscaling. Companies are forced to do multi-stop technology shopping in this approach, and that doesn't work well. That is why this one-stop shop idea that we’ve been building for years is so valuable for our industry collaborators.

Dave: Your perspective makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t seem to be very common.

Hugo: Unfortunately, not everybody likes the idea of having a pilot production line at a university. Some people say universities should focus on fundamental research, and maybe engineering departments can do some applied research, but production upscaling is not the job of a university.

You can publish your research results as much as you want in the hopes that maybe someday a company will adopt your ideas and do something valuable with them, but in my opinion, that is not the most efficient or effective way to help your research transition into society.

I had to fight very hard to get my previous bosses to understand what I wanted and why I wanted it. They were thinking that we were selling our academic souls and did not see the benefit of working with industry. I think it is a pity when university leaders have that perspective, because there is a huge benefit to the approach we are taking.

Dave: How did you develop that vision so early in your career?

Hugo: I knew that if we wanted to push our ideas out into the market, we needed help from industry. I was trying to convince them that they should work with us and adopt our ideas, but I found out the hard way that industry doesn't care. Their engineers may have thought some of our ideas were interesting, but they weren’t willing to invest any money in what we were doing. I started out thinking we could develop some great ideas and then be able to find a company that would be interested in turning it into a product. But in 40 years of research and innovation, I have never seen that work. We’ve set up our own spinoff companies for ideas that had commercial potential, but we never found existing companies that would pay money for what we were doing.

So, I learned the hard way that ‘technology push’ doesn't work. It was very painful, and I was frustrated. In fact, I was pissed off. So, I asked them, ‘Well, if you're not interested in what we are doing, what are you interested in?’ And they said, ‘Well, we have this problem here, and we are struggling with a challenge there. Could you help us with those?’ And I realized that helping them with problems, rather than pushing our technology on them, was the opportunity I’d been looking for.

Then I discovered that if you solve their problems and help them to reach their goals, they may become more interested in the other work that you are doing. After a while they come and visit your labs and you get to show them what you're working on. But you have to leave it to them to select what interests them, because only they know what they need. So, you start with small real-world problems that need to be solved immediately, and little by little, you can establish a longer-term collaboration.

I found that out 20 years ago, but today it is called ‘flipped tech transfer.’ It is considered ‘flipped’ because rather than trying to push your technology out into companies, you learn what problems they have and figure out if you have something that can help.

Dave: Most successful academic collaborators have figured that out, but many tech transfer offices still attempt the technology push approach.

Hugo: If you want to work with industry, the focus needs to be on industry. You have to forget about yourself, and think, ‘If I were in industry, why might I need these academic researchers?’ Put yourself in their position. Every day they are working on problems that range from very small to some that may take a year or two to solve, and your research group just might be able to help.

It used to be that a university group could hope to work with one of the big company central research labs, and they were more amenable to a technology push approach. But those days of working with AT&T Bell Labs, the IBM Watson center, and HP Labs are over.

Dave: It’s as though when a company collaborates with a university lab, that lab plays the role that the Xerox and AT&T research labs used to play.

Hugo: Exactly, and I think that should be the way forward for academic-industry collaboration.

Dave: This perspective opens entirely new opportunities for university research groups.

Hugo: Yes, new opportunities both for open-minded university research groups and open-minded companies.

Unfortunately, you still have people from industry that are very reluctant to listen to experts from university, and you still have university research groups that don't want to hear about industry.

In industry, the resistance comes primarily from a ‘not-invented here’ syndrome, where they think that if it is not invented by their engineers, it is not good. But I think that attitude prevents them from being truly innovative.

At universities I still see people who consider themselves top-level researchers because of the number of high impact publications they have. And of course, there is value in fundamental research. But often fundamental research stops with a publication. My question to them is, ‘What came out of all of those publications? Where have you made a difference?’ And their answer is very often either, ‘I don't care,’ or else they believe that perhaps, like with Einstein, one day people will use their work for something useful. But those answers are not good enough for me.

I don't think that is the most efficient way to utilize our limited funding, either. Let us not forget, it is a highly competitive world with limited research funding.

Dave: This sounds like excellent training for your students and postdocs. The lessons you describe go far beyond the training most graduate programs deliver.

Hugo: In the Brussels Photonics (B-PHOT) organization at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, we encourage all of our PhD and master's students to spend several months working with a company on a topic similar to their thesis topic, if their promoters allow it. They learn that industry thinks in a very different way than their promoter, and whether they pursue a university career or an industry career, that experience will always be valuable.

B-PHOT is a rather unusual and diverse research team of about 75 people. We have several professors, but also four or five business developers working with companies. We have technical experts who operate our highly specialized technology platforms, and of course, we have a lot of PhD students and postdocs and then 20 to 30 master’s students in our photonics engineering curriculum.

Dave: I imagine you find it very rewarding to look at what you have built here with Brussels Photonics.

Hugo: I find it absolutely rewarding to work in a research ecosystem where we have a mix of fundamental research, applied research, prototyping, and production upscaling.

Flipped Tech Transfer - A New Model for Academic Research

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