Catalysing university research

The search for the perfect university-industry collaboration goes on. I've seen it operating brilliantly in Israel.

Our own universities all sport incubators and tech transfer offices.  But one I visited in Aachen, Germany, is the smartest so far.

Called the Catalytic Centre or CAT for short, it's a joint venture between RWTH Aachen, a technical university, and Bayer Material Sciences. The CAT specialises in catalysis, the unique combination of molecules, heat and pressure that causes chemical reactions to happen.

The topic of catalysis may make your eyes water with boredom, but it's interesting to anyone in chemistry. And the CAT is working on plenty of interesting projects, including the creation of plastic from waste C02.

More relevant for us though is the structure of the collaboration between the university and Bayer. Together the two have committed 20 million euros over 10 years to fund the centre's research programme. In return Bayer gets access to all the intellectual property that might emerge from collaboration.

At first blush this seems imbalanced. In most university-industry collaborations the university attempts to retain a chunk of IP, indeed often times as much as 30 percent.  Our Crown Research Institutes frequently try to retain IP that can then be licensed for profit.

I put the question of retained IP to the Rector (the equivalent of the Vice Chancellor) at RWTH and his reply was straightforward.

"No, we don’t want to keep the IP and we don't care."

Come again?

"We want our partners to be very successful. Because then we will be successful."

The way he sees it, the university is the major beneficiary in this arrangement. It has a guaranteed flow of Bayer cash to buy very expensive machinery, fund a staff of global experts and provide a world-class teaching environment.

"The centre has become a magnet for top researchers from around the world who have access to the latest technology and can benefit from the dense network of contact in Germany and abroad," says Professor Walter Leitner, the CAT director.

What's more, the machinery and labs funded by Bayer are available to students for learning.

Another challenge in this arrangement is publication. Academics like to see their work published in journals. Yet Bayer needs to protect its own commercial interests. How is this resolved? Carefully, it appears.

Before any work is published in journals, it must go through a patent filter, and any patentable discoveries take precedence.

The CAT is one of hundreds of joint ventures and collaborations by the German sciences company. It spends close to 672 million euros on external R&D, a third of its total spend.

Understanding how Bayer successfully negotiates alliances could provide important lessons for our own innovation system.