Sharing is the new having
Driving research and innovation in ecosystems
With its new Research and Innovation Ecosystem, Siemens is expanding its collaboration with universities and other strategic partners. In this interview, Siemens Technology Senior Manager Natascha Eckert explains why this strategy is the answer to the latest trend in the scientific landscape.
Siemens has been running a global strategic cooperation program with selected universities for over 20 years. On October 1, 2021, this program was expanded from 25 university-centric partnerships to a total of 16 Research and Innovation Ecosystems, that will each be composed of multiple universities, research institutes, and academic startups. Why?
Overall, I see our new strategic partner program as a response to the general trend in the scientific landscape. Universities today no longer work alone. They conduct research, teach, and innovate in collaboration with research institutes and through international alliances with other universities, they found their own startups, and they collaborate with industrial partners like Siemens. To a growing extent, they’re also partnering with small and medium-sized enterprises.
Establishing the new Siemens Research and Innovation Ecosystem program signals our desire to take even greater advantage of regional innovation ecosystems in the future. These systems are made up of universities, research institutes, and startup incubators as well as our customers and other industrial partners. We hope that this program will allow us to make even better use of the innovation potential that each of these players bring to the table and therefore provide impact for our Business Units and their customers.
At the same time, we recognize that it’s our social obligation to contribute to managing today’s major challenges, whether it’s decarbonization, the digital transformation, or changes in demographics.
In your opinion, what have been the most striking changes in the research environment over the past twenty years?
Today all signs point toward dialog. Sharing is the new having. We’ve finally realized that the only way we can solve the problems confronting us today is by working together. For example, industry is coming to us much more frequently with questions about sustainability and creativity. That was fairly rare in the past. Today the question is, “Do we want to work together?” It isn’t our direct competitors that are asking this question, it’s other innovative partners. But I no longer exclude the possibility of collaborating with competitors in our ecosystems. The future belongs to “coopetition.”
Another change is the increasing significance of academic spin-offs, a phenomenon that’s now spread to Europe. In addition to research and teaching, the “third mission” of universities is to much more consistently commercialize the results of their own research. One aspect involves motivating students, university startup programs, and incubators and providing them with professional support. More and more professors are also jumping on the innovation bandwagon. This tips the balance between basic and applied research much more toward practical application. Both the economy and society benefit when research leads to innovations that are launched quickly. Nevertheless, basic research remains an essential element of academic research. Quantum technology and transmutation are prime examples. Even though both are still a long way from producing marketable innovations, basic research is increasingly perceived as a magnifying-glass for our future.
We also see an increasing number of living labs at universities. Living labs are a new form of cooperation between science and civil society that focuses on learning from one another in an experimental and, more importantly, protected environment. This is a new phenomenon. In the past, universities – like companies –tended to be closed systems. Concepts like open innovation, co-creation, and co-location provide research with a direct line to application.
Can you describe these dynamics between basic and applied research in more detail?
For example, many of today’s publicly funded research projects also have to deliver a prototype in the end. The fact that taxpayer money is being invested means that research has to have tangible benefits. For many publicly funded research programs, this significantly shortens the horizon: the time it takes to arrive at a marketable innovation. Nevertheless, robust basic research continues to be a necessity. That’s why our ecosystems also include research institutes that specialize in much longer-term and visionary research, like the Max Planck Institute and the National Academy of Sciences. Basic research provides both industry and society with insights into the technology trends of tomorrow and beyond.
Fascinating Research & Technology
Insights into our research labs and technical backgrounds
Can you give me an example of one of these future-driven technological trends?
Sure: Let’s take self-healing materials. The question for basic research is how we can develop materials in the future that are so sustainable that they can “repair” themselves. There’s already a lot of knowledge available on reversible and irreversible systems, but much of it is still a long way from scalable commercialization. In our case, however, sustainability more or less demands that we pursue and support this type of basic research, and this is exactly what’s happening in our 16 international Research and Innovation Ecosystems.
Ideally, what would you like to achieve with the Siemens Research and Innovation Ecosystem?
Our goal is to intensify the exchange of information between the different partners in our ecosystems. Our Business Units that digitally transform their operations get valuable impulses from outside, either in terms of innovation – for example, in one of the many living labs – or through direct access to young critical talent. Siemens needs a much stronger presence and greater visibility on the university campus. Students need to recognize that Siemens is developing future technologies that make products and solutions more innovative and more sustainable. We offer them exciting jobs: for example, jobs that increase energy intelligence in industrial buildings, make production processes more flexible and sustainable, and increase the safety of autonomous trains.
I also want Siemens to be perceived as an equal partner within the research network and not simply a research customer. Our new approach is based more on a partnership philosophy. In particular, we want to integrate small and medium-sized enterprises and young startups into our collaboration projects. My vision is a much broader and universal collaboration than ever before. Our collaboration with external partners is now much more comprehensive, complex, and connected – just like the challenges of our time.
Siemens has a number of levers for managing these challenges: for example, reducing carbon emissions. The sectors with the highest carbon emissions are industry, building infrastructure, and all types of transportation – the very sectors where Siemens is actively working to develop energy-saving and decarbonization solutions. We want to delve into all these topics and issues in collaboration with the partners in our global Research and Innovation Ecosystems. Most importantly, we want to invite young people and encourage them to participate in the search for solutions. Someday I’d like to look at myself in the mirror and be able to say that I was a small part of a larger footprint that promoted a better, more sustainable, and healthier world.
Susanne Gold, February 2022
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