The marriage between business and science, a crucial factor in driving an innovative economy, can be a win-win situation. But some concessions need to be made first: entrepreneurs must think beyond profit, while scientists should look for a practical rationale for their projects.
Professor Jerzy Lis, rector of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, is optimistic. “We are already cooperating, for instance with the IT sector. However, it is important to think about it differently, not just in terms of great Nobel-winning projects. It is about day-to-day work, expert opinions, transfers of people, implementation-based doctorates,” he enumerates. “Right from the start, AGH partnered with KGHM, the copper company. But that is not all. Before the pandemic, war and high inflation, over 40% of AGH’s income came from funds raised through its cooperation with industry, including from the ceramics and construction sectors. Our technologies can be found in surface-finishing products such as gypsum or paints.”
Professor Lis points out that thanks to Poland’s EU membership, achievements cannot be subdivided into domestic and foreign ones. “We often see a situation where a company orders an analysis, some of it being performed, for example, in a German laboratory, and some of it in a Polish one. There is a mutual intermingling of people and projects. If there are no borders between the countries, there are no borders in science, either. Each of our 17 departments at AGH is like a research and teaching company: each has its own business partner. What is important in these relations is to jointly identify needs,” he emphasises.
And this, we have heard, can be problematic. For comment, we approached Professor Wojciech Bizon, an economist from the University of Gdańsk
and the President of the Management Board of Univentum Labs (a company established by his alma mater to commercialise scientific research). “We would like to force scientists and entrepreneurs to collaborate. Well, this resembles the arranged marriages we know from the past. Such unions only stand a chance if everyone supports them all the time. But the market situation might vary,” he says. “The prevailing line of thinking in enterprises is crucial. If it is focused on earning quick profits, there is little room for R&D because the more innovative the project, the higher the risk. Unfortunately, it is safer to apply ready-made models and, at most, adapt them as necessary. Poland dreams of achieving quick results and becoming globally competitive. We are not rich in commodities; we do not walk on oil deposits. One solution would be to focus on a few national projects, perhaps in quantum or post-quantum physics, which could be used, for instance, in cybersecurity as this field is becoming increasingly important. If we could allocate really significant public funding there and convince businesses that this could bring great market value in the future, such an endeavour could be fruitful.”
Of course, Professor Bizon makes a few provisos. The first condition would be to minimise the risk of potential abuse in such a centrally coordinated project. The second condition would be to find a common language with academia so that scientists understand that science is not only pursued for the sake of science itself. Without a utilitarian value, science becomes art for art’s sake. And another human factor must also be taken into consideration – one that tends to be neglected. “In Poland, we are risk-averse. We forget that trial and error is part and parcel of exploration. When someone stumbles, they become ostracised. This is a mistake – after all, if there is no failure, there is no progress,” he warns.
The Agreement of Special Purpose Companies was established in 2014 as a forum for cooperation between several dozen university-based enterprises from all over Poland, all of them established to commercialise the results of research conducted at universities and research institutes and to undertake research commissioned by the business sector. Jakub Jasiczak, the Chairman of the Agreement, believes that Poland is a country of untapped potential. “We settle for the first solutions that work and companies are happy to be earning money. Meanwhile, our growth potential is much greater,” he stresses. In his opinion, the side that needs to be stimulated to be more active is business, not academia. “Nowadays, entrepreneurs talk about ‘escaping forward’, about seeking new paths after the supply chains have been broken. In reality, however, their minds work ‘here and now’, busy to ensure the survival of their business. As a result, we often have no counterparts to discuss new solutions with. Let me give you an example. We once had a discussion about photovoltaics with someone from the renewable energy sector. They told us this idea was not conducive to growth because nobody could win with cheap Chinese production. Well, this kind of thinking closes our minds to innovation before it even begins.”
Jasiczak believes that relations are crucial here. When business people knock on university doors, they often see scholars who are not eager to take up challenging topics. They are overwhelmed by academic bureaucracy. “Eighty percent of them do things to earn points or get promoted. They engage in teaching. This is repetitive and safe. These people need to be convinced that working with industry is not about a one-off thing, a fleeting affair, but can represent an alternative path of development,” he emphasises.
However, instruments to create incentives must also be there. Jacek Kubrak, the head of the Podkarpackie Innovation Centre, stresses that only about 16 out of 207,000 businesses registered in the region have enough funds for R&D to launch a new product. “We are still seeing the consequences of decisions made in the 1990s, when it was decided that Poland would offer cheap labour as its competitive advantage, and we sold assets off to strategic investors. As a result, the R&D centres operating in Poland do not work for the Polish market but instead boost the potential of foreign companies,” he claims. Kubrak argues that the highest potential today lies in medium-sized enterprises, including family businesses, which should be supported in the field of innovation. “This is exactly why our Centre was established, initiated by the World Bank and the European Commission, in cooperation with the authorities of the Podkarpackie Region. A crucial step in these activities is to map the innovation needs of industry, and to promote cooperation between universities. In fact, more than 90 out of 172 projects submitted in our last programme were interdisciplinary: scholars teamed up to fight for grants. A total of 24 proposed solutions were in medicine and telemedicine; others were in agriculture and artificial intelligence. It seems crucial to help people break out of the rut of teaching only, where little time is left for research. Otherwise Polish universities will never climb higher in the global rankings, not to mention the Shanghai Ranking.”
The National Centre for Research and Development, the government agency tasked with bringing business and science together, established Akces NCBR last year. This new company is designed to facilitate financing to implement R&D results and support academics and stimulate entrepreneurs to invest in science. “These beautiful guidelines can finally be put into action,” says Adam Kostrzewa, President of Management Board at Akces NCBR. He argues that people in Poland and around the world have discussed feeding ideas into industry (or sometimes vice versa). It is a good concept, which is demonstrated, for example, by the expansion of the global technology and computer industry, which started off with transistors and government orders. “First and foremost, an innovative economy is about competitiveness, and about making money and ploughing that money back into R&D,” he remarks.
Kostrzewa also draws attention to a term which, although not coined in Poland, also refers to our local realities. The term is ‘death valley’ or a gorge that must be crossed in order to transition from the research stage to implementation and industrial-scale development. “We might ask where this valley came from in the first place. Was it because there weren’t enough exciting projects, or not enough money?” Kostrzewa has an answer of his own. “We wouldn’t go far if we remained passive. On the one hand, we have the world of finance, ready and waiting for someone to knock on their door and present an alluring vision. On the other hand, we have scientists who are confined to their labs. Therefore, we created an incentive for both: if they want to get funding, they need to team up first. An idea or a project must be accompanied by an implementation concept.”
The Government Will Step in Wherever Businesses Hesitate
Kostrzewa points out that Akces NCBR enables more ambitious projects to be undertaken, i.e. ones that are more advanced in terms of technology and the risks involved. Such projects might be risky for business, but precious for the country. Without support, they could get stuck in ‘death valley’. For instance, they include projects related to ICT, AI, electromobility and e-commerce. They might not be ready for commercialisation tomorrow, but with public financial support they can ‘catch the wind in their sails’ and journey out onto the market. “It is crucial to work with universities. We are planning many trips around Poland to tell academics what we expect and what we offer in return,” he says. He argues that not all universities in Poland are expected to apply most of their activities and research in business and industry. However, a share of around 20% would be excellent.
“The problem is that the vast majority of Polish universities are typical teaching establishments. They focus on education and turning out graduates in their respective disciplines. This is extremely valuable, but it would be perfect if they could establish a unit focused on research and liaising with industry. Perhaps we should think about building a hub and inviting researchers from all over the country to work there. What we are missing now is some kind of ‘generator’ or research centre that would provide inspiration for large-scale industrial applications,” he believes. ©℗