Science and Business: Closer Than Ever
September 30, 2013
Prof. Krzysztof Jan Kurzydłowski, director of the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR), talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.
How close is science to business these days? Has the relationship between the two changed in recent years?
It has changed in a major way, and I hope these changes will be even faster in the future. After Poland changed its political and economic system in 1989, the economy here quickly become competitive in both Europe and elsewhere, but this was thanks to better and more cost-effective production rather than innovation. Foreign investment in Poland was often accompanied by the need to manufacture a specific range of products to meet market demand. The Polish economy coped very well with this task, but this does not mean that there was a boom for research into new, innovative proprietary technologies. It was not until quite a few years later that some positive change occurred in this department. This included the emergence of ambitions for Poland to lead the way in various areas of technology. This process is being stimulated by multinational corporations that have invested in Poland. There are signals that these corporations increasingly want their Polish subsidiaries to develop their own products without waiting for the technology and production orders from their parent organizations. One example is the aviation industry, where more and more original solutions for new-generation aircraft are being developed in Polish plants working for big international corporations.
For example, WSK Rzeszów [an aircraft maker in the eastern city of Rzeszów] now handles the manufacture of a whole engine. Admittedly, this is not the main engine of the airplane, but one responsible for all the onboard systems and for the production of electricity and mechanical energy. The Polish factory must therefore produce the whole engine, pack it and ship it to Boeing or Airbus. At the same time, it must begin to develop new models of this engine for the next generations of the aircraft these global companies are working on. It is precisely the search for new solutions that creates new quality in Polish companies, especially those that operate as part of multinational corporations.
Meanwhile, the demand for innovation is beginning to grow in Poland, with the impetus for scientific research coming from the economy. This is, in my opinion, the most important kind of impetus, and I hope we are dealing with a trend that will continue to pick up momentum. As regards the supply side, the situation is still difficult to evaluate. For one thing, we have a lot of investment in infrastructure; Polish science has become far more modern than it used to be. Literally speaking, hectares of new laboratories have been created that fully meet international standards. Even less high-profile colleges now have well-equipped laboratories capable of conducting the most complex research projects. Today all this—from the point of view of the government—must still be classified as expenses. But when these laboratories begin to come up with truly innovative and original solutions, we will be able to say that this was money well spent and a good investment in education.
At the same time, science has undergone a rejuvenation process—most of the research has moved to universities, which now employ about 70 percent of all research workers with at least a Ph.D. degree. Once this was no more than 50 percent. In the case of technical sciences, this ratio is even higher, reaching 90 percent.
The changes I’m referring to are necessary but insufficient on their own to stimulate academic innovation. Researchers also need to be convinced that this is simply worth their while—a good way to earn money. In this context, it is worth highlighting an initiative by the science minister, Barbara Kudrycka, to give scientists ownership rights to their inventions. They need to not only keep their mind on the research aspect of their work, but also to see the real gain for themselves if they develop innovative, commercially successful solutions.
As director of the NCBiR, I am pleased to see that the financial involvement of businesspeople in our research projects is growing, and it’s growing very fast. The agreements we have signed to date are for well over zl.1 billion in terms of commitments made by businesspeople. Of course, public funds still dominate, but it is important that private funds are increasingly abundant. I believe that businesses are steadily growing more interested in working with the research community and I predict that in the next two to three years Poland will see some spectacular growth in this area. Our goal is make sure that a balance is achieved between public and private funds for innovation in Poland over the next seven years, which means the period covered by the new EU budget. I think this is difficult but doable.
How does the NCBiR support collaboration between business and science aimed at boosting innovation in Polish industry?
I believe the way we are doing this is the most modern in Europe today. We have a number of programs that probably no other agency like us provides. As part of these programs, we spend funds after announcing competitions, most of which require collaboration between industry and universities or research institutes. Competition is a guarantee of quality there. While channeling funds to the science-industry team-up, we must do that in a manner attractive to industry, because otherwise businesses will not want to spend their own funds on the program. The rule is that we can finance no more than half the cost of a project, in keeping with regulations on admissible state aid. In other words, a company participating in our program must cover 50 percent of its value. A university, in turn, receives 100 percent of the costs of its research efforts. Of course, all this must be done in a completely transparent way.
My ambition is to spend all the money that the NCBiR has at its disposal every year. This year about zl.4.5 billion is up for grabs. I want this money to buy the best product, the best innovations. Finding out if this is the case takes some time. Roughly speaking, each of my decisions can only be judged after a period of five to six years in terms of whether it was correct or not. This is how long it takes for the results of the NCBiR’s work to be realistically assessed in the case of each project.
What are the center’s plans for the coming years? Do you have any new ideas to encourage industry to team up with science?
For years I’ve been saying that public funds are limited and grants from the European Union have a time limit as well, so—sooner rather than later—we are in for a real battle for private funds, without which innovation in Poland cannot develop. This challenge will require certain conditions to be met.
The top priority is to create a system of business brokers. We are doing that together with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Specialized units should appear at universities dealing with matching up science and business, presenting the achievements of researchers and proposing how these can be used for commercial purposes. Such teams are already in existence at several Polish universities.
Another priority for the coming years is what are called smart specializations, which means, first, the choice of specific industries, and second, determining the direction in which they should develop so it’s possible to go ahead with specific projects that are promising and cost-effective. It seems to me that we already know how to do that, how to effectively identify these smart specializations, especially taking into account the readiness of industry to financially support a specific project and looking at the possibility of putting the results of the project to good use. One example of such an industry is innovative medicine, particularly telemedicine. The Polish medical community is highly mobile intellectually and works very well with chemists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers—this is a very promising area of collaboration which we will keep supporting.
It is easy to spot the fast-growing industries in Poland. It is also known which of them are the most receptive to innovation. This does not mean, however, that in all these sectors there will be cooperation with the National Center for Research and Development. Some of these industries are coping excellently on their own, without any national programs. Information technology is a good example.
What about programs where Polish scientists are already quite successful—for instance those involving graphene, the revolutionary new material that offers a myriad of potential applications in industry?
Of course, we do support this research, but this is a highly risky area. Getting graphene research from the laboratory to industry requires massive spending, which no more than three to four corporations in today’s world can afford. So we can either target a small niche in the market or develop technology for sale to the biggest market players.
Poland’s armed forces are due to undergo large-scale technological modernization over the next decade. Could this stimulate innovation across the country?
Yes, without a doubt. We just need to skillfully find a neat compromise between what we develop on our own and what we buy from the world’s leading manufacturers in order to develop it further on our own. It is no secret that any license that you buy anywhere is already obsolete by the time you buy it. This particularly applies to military technology. On the other hand, it is also known that there’s no point developing certain components in Poland—in terms of both cost-effectiveness and the capabilities of Polish researchers.
The development of innovation in Poland to a large extent depends on the younger generation, both scientists and businesspeople. What do you think of this generation?
I’m very optimistic. I see an emerging generation of educated, worldly-wise young people who have no complexes and who are, increasingly, equal partners for their peers in countries far more developed than Poland. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that top international companies are increasingly eager to hire young Polish specialists. However, on many occasions, there’s still a sort of intellectual malaise that needs to be overcome. The same applies to mobility, which is very important in the modern world.