May 19, 2008
Michel Cosnard, the chairman of the French Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique (INRIA), on the dialogue between big companies and research organisations:
Do you think that there is a gap between business and scientific community in Europe?
The situation regarding the field of information and communication science and technology (ICST) is very diverse between countries and organisations.
I think that, for example, Finland has been making a lot of progress for 15 years and the situation now seems to be satisfactory (as illustrated by the success of Nokia). In France, my organisation INRIA has always been involved in technology transfer but that has not been the case for universities or CNRS some ten years ago. This has, however, improved a lot in recent years. Each member state has universities that are more focused on basic research but sometimes technology transfer (TT) is not taken seriously enough and therefore there are no good results.
So, the situation is diverse and the gap is mainly about companies and universities, because research organisations often have a mission to work with companies, such as the German Frauenhofer Institute, the French Inria or the French atomic energy commission.
Does Europe have a problem with technology transfer?
The problem is not so much that universities are doing too much basic research, it is more about companies not taking care of basic research or future and emerging technologies in their strategic plans. Companies are too shy in this respect and don’t care about basic research. We can understand that they themselves are not doing it but in Europe, in general, they are not even supporting the basic research done elsewhere. I think companies need to sustain basic research in Europe.
At least, in French universities the highest degree you can have is a PhD, while the French companies don’t like this title or recognise it. If a person has a PhD in computer science for example, he will have a hard time obtaining a good position in a company. The person is seen by companies as being “too basic-research oriented” and without enough interest for companies. This is a very strange situation. I think that companies, in particular big companies, need to have staff who know what research, in particular basic research, is. We need to have more people going from one side to the other. However, I hope that the situation is about to evolve, especially due to the growing impact of the so-called CIFRE PhD (a PhD carried out in a company partially with public funding).
Can the European Commission do anything to remedy this problem?
The salary gap between those who work in science and companies is important. We could imagine an EU programme financing the difference in salary for a company person who wants to go for a while into a research organisation. This would also allow research organisations to hire people from companies.
Should technology transfer be professionalised in Europe and how could this be done?
Technology transfer (TT) is done in several ways. One of them is cooperation and collaborative programmes between big companies and research organisations. Here, we need to have better understanding between the parties. It is a matter of people working together and big advances have been made in the design and construction of clusters. This is a good step towards better interaction.
Another way to do TT is to transfer people from research labs to companies. This is a kind of transfer of competences, which can be increased as well.
The third way to do TT is the creation of start ups. When a start up is created from a research laboratory or organisation – it is more like a way to test some ideas. It is not always about a new product that has been designed but some type of prototype for which the market is not well defined, because we are not working on a concrete domain.
TT through the creation of start ups is a good way – some will evolve and become SMEs or big companies or then just be bought up by other companies.
We need more support for start up creation and possibilities for them to grow quicker. For this we need more money and venture capital. Venture capital in Europe is some three to five times less than in the United States, even though there are more people in Europe. There is a big gap in venture capital and the start ups cannot grow at the same speed as in the US.
Why is there then so little venture capital in Europe?
Maybe because Europe is still too fragmented. This is also the case for the venture capitalists. They don’t know where to go. In the US the situation is that there are big clusters, like Silicon Valley.
There are cluster comparable to Silicon Valley in Europe as well, but perhaps they are not credible enough. If you look for example at microelectronics, there are only three big centres in Europe, whereas the situation in the telecommunications sector or the software technology one is far more diverse.
So we need to have more concentration and some flagship clusters should emerge from these. Clusters bridging fundamental and applied research are not easy to launch because it takes time to have a common vocabulary and to get to know each other, but there is already some good progress and this is good for competitiveness and innovation.
What are the conditions for efficient technology transfer in Europe?
When we launch a new programme at Inria, we always think of the outcome of the programme and how to sell it. Often the outcome is some kind of technology or software development or a technology that is patented. But it is not enough to just create a technology – it also needs to be transferred. So for each technology we are trying to find the right vector – to know with whom and what it could work.
But we need to have more and better evidence earlier on the research agenda to ascertain what the market could be and which companies could be interested in what we are doing. This is not so easy when we are engaging in a process with researchers that are more interested in obtaining the creativity process than looking towards transfer.
At Inria, we have very good engineers and researchers, but a good researcher or engineer is not always a good manager. Therefore it is important to team these people with good managers and entrepreneurs. However, finding good managers and entrepreneurs is really not easy. This is the most difficult part in creating start ups – building a good team.
What do think of the role of IPR in technology transfer? Could a Community patent ease TT in Europe?
The question of patents is a rather difficult one. When patenting was invented, patent protection was more about circulation and dissemination of ideas, disclosing an invention once it was patented. Nowadays, sometimes, the patent is seen as complete protection.
I’m very much in favour of a European patent rather than several national patents. In addition, we need to have a real European policy on patenting. However, we should be very careful when delivering patents to make sure that they do not become barriers for innovation. Patents should be delivered for real progress in technology, not for broad ideas. Patenting broad areas could be a barrier against innovation.
We should also be careful about ethical barriers to innovation for example in patenting some system that may reduce human freedoms, such as some audio-video surveillance systems reducing privacy.
There is also the question of software patents. We should be very careful with what we are patenting. If you have a very good algorithm for computing some mathematical function, I don’t think it can be patented – it should be published. What could be patented is a system designed for computing the function, not the algorithm.
Ideas should not be allowed to get a patent. Ideas should be free and disseminated very rapidly without barriers because this is the source of progress.
How important are standards for technology transfer?
Standards are very important for developing a market and securing companies and customers. In our field, standards are very important for ensuring interoperability. Software systems should interoperate. If they don’t, it is once again against progress. Web technologies should interoperate as well. It would be waste of energy and resources if everything needed to be translated from one country to another.
The main question is not to define a standard per se, but to define the best standard that will ensure interoperability. If we look at the web, the HTML standard was the most efficient way to ensure the interoperability of the web. Internet and web technology were based on standards for interoperability, which was not, for example, the case in telecommunications for years.
Sometimes standards are seen as a way to protect market and that is not good. It is against market development.
What do you expect the outcome of your conference on technology transfer in Brussels on 28 May will be?
We think that we can show Inria’s experience in TT. Inria is 40 years old and in the field of ICST we have experience and success and we have learned from the past so we can deliver our own message on the issue.
On the other hand, we are humble. We don’t know everything and things are changing at European level so we would like to learn from other organisations and the EU institutions so to have a better understanding on how things evolve and if Inria is still in the good direction. We also wish to learn how we can network better with our sister organisations in Europe.
Inria is doing TT in France on start up creation and with big French companies. But we want to have more interaction with European companies. It is a general view. We have very good partnerships with Philips in the Netherlands, Nokia in Finland or Telefonica in Spain, but it is not enough. We can have more relations with non-French companies
Could the Commission act as facilitator or do something to support transnational, cross-border technology transfer?
The drawback of competitiveness clusters is that they are geographically focused. And sometimes people don’t make the effort to go outside to see if there are other research centres, people or companies that may be more suited for what they are doing.
The EU could help networking between the clusters as well as create better linkages between companies and research organisations and centres.
Interview: EurActiv.comAuthor : iScience