"Tomorrow’s world will be all about collaboration", Christian Barbier, head of the Canton of Neuchâtel economics department, told attendees at a recent workshop run by Microcity at Le Laténium, the Neuchâtel archaeology museum. Topic presented: technology transfers to boost SMEs’ competitiveness, or how the academic world and its expertise can serve the economy. An approach that is fully in tune with the mission of Microcity, the Neuchâtel innovation hub.
Various aspects of this kind of collaborative approach were discussed, taking examples from real-life case studies. At what point in an industrial project can we realistically seek aid from academic researchers? "You need a clear idea at the outset,” Bertrand Späth explained. He co-founded Kizy Tracking, a container tracking system. To develop the technology required to bring his idea to life, he benefited from the resources of the EPFL, most notably to optimise the accuracy of the location service and the tracker’s energy management.
Another project that brought researchers on-board is the latest-generation electronic ankle bracelet from GEOSATIS. To breathe life into its project, the company benefited from the expertise of various institutions, such as HE-Arc. Researchers from there helped design the shape of the bracelet to fit different ankle shapes! Then, once the product had been designed, it then needed manufacturing. “Industrial players in the region have amazing capacities in that respect”, José Démétrio, CEO of GEOSATIS, told us. GEOSATIS thus turned to Cloos Electronic in Le Locle and worked closely with them to produce the device. For Robert Klossek, the company’s CEO, “what is vital in this kind of project is that we trust one another”.
“In some, very rare cases, the person with the idea goes it alone, right up to the manufacturing of their product”, reveals Omid Shojaei, head of INDEOTEC. This company, specialised in thin film deposition systems for the production of solar cells, draws on a panel of industrial partners to manufacture its machines. When it came to fine-tuning the latest versions, they turned to CSEM. Among others. Because, for Shojaei, it is important that the company behind the project retains control over the intellectual property. To anyone looking to benefit from external research, he has one piece of advice. “Spread your projects between different research partners. That way, you alone have end-to-end knowledge of the complete project”.
That said, working with external research partners is extremely beneficial for a company. “We would never be able to take on such resources ourselves”, admits Alain Michaud, product line manager at Oscilloquartz. His company called on researchers from the Time and Frequency laboratory at the University of Neuchâtel to develop new technology to improve the accuracy and durability of its caesium atomic clocks.
The CTI, the Technical and Industrial Commission, remains a key player in partnerships between researchers and businesses. From 2018, the organisation will be known as Innosuisse. It provides funding for the research and development aspects of innovative projects entrusted to the relevant academic research bodies. In 2016, the CTI paid out 216 million CHF to fund industrial projects which, although not always ultra high-tech, involved a research phase in partnership with the academic realm. To encourage the economic stakeholders present at the workshop to make the leap, André Droux, CTI representative, simply says:
”In Romandy, out of a hundred or so projects, there is a 50% failure rate... but more importantly, a 50% success rate”.