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A recipe for success: reach for the (blue) sky

26 Feb 2019
From left to right: ERC grantees Lieven Eeckhout of Ghent University, Bernard Dieny of SPINTEC, CEA and Thomas Schäfer of the University of the Basque Country

The European Research Council’s proof of concept programme funds grantees who want to put their discoveries into practical use. At a Brussels event, 3 grantees talk about the challenges and prospects

By Peter Wrobel

Around thirty years ago an idea surfaced in the physics community: that it might be possible to use the intrinsic “spin” of electrons to reduce electrical resistance. As “blue sky” research goes, it was a very deep shade of blue.

As a young researcher, Bernard Dieny dived straight into this new field – working in both industry and academia. Three decades and many prizes later, Dieny was in Brussels 4 February explaining to an audience from academia and industry how he was using the science of what is now called “spin electronics” to reduce the power consumed by electronic circuits. Or to put that another way, about how to produce a mobile phone that you need only charge once a week.

Dieny, from the CEA in Grenoble, France, was one of three researchers at a meeting organised by the EU-funded ERC=Science2 project to explain how they have been using Proof of Concept grants from the European Research Council (ERC) to move ideas out of the sky and into real products. The ERC’s Proof of Concept programme funds scientists who want to develop their fundamental research into something directly usable in society.

Among the audience was ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. For him the Proof of Concept programme is an important – even though relatively small – dimension of the ERC’s work.  

“Arguing for blue sky research is a permanent challenge for me,” he said, acknowledging that while sometimes such research connects with industry or other partners, sometimes it stays as blue sky. “So I have to show good arguments.”

Those good arguments were not hard to find in the presentations from the researchers. Apart from Dieny, examples were given of near-market progress in water desalination and computer architecture.

Thomas Schäfer at the University of the Basque Country, Spain, described how research initially aimed at using DNA molecules inside nanopores to control water flow had resulted in techniques to detect fouling in desalination plants.

Lieven Eeckhout at Ghent University, Belgium, has been trying to understand, at a fundamental level, how microprocessors work. His approach is to simulate computer architecture at a level of abstraction that can lift him above the fog of describing every single action in every single part of a chip. It’s an approach that has enabled him to analyse the way new chips will behave ten times as quickly – and has already seen his work used by Intel. He’s currently working on a system for ARM, the world’s biggest manufacturer of chips for mobile phones.

What is blue sky research? Interestingly, the three researchers couldn’t agree on a definition. For Dieny, there are two types: focused fundamental research with an application 10 to 20 years out, and longer-term research “to move the frontiers of knowledge forward”.

“I have never worked on problems that will be out there in 20 years’ time,” said Eeckhout. “I’m working on problems that are around today.” The blue sky element is coming up with new, deep insights to existing problems.

Schäfer had another perspective. “It’s about looking at things from a completely different angle…[so] you don’t know what you’re going to find.” When it comes down to it, blue sky research “doesn’t really have a definition; it depends who you ask.”

Whatever the definition, all three researchers stressed the importance of collaboration with industry – and the value of a Proof of Concept grant when approaching industry and investors. But why, asked moderator Carlos Härtel from Science|Business, does it seem so hard to get industry and venture capital on board?

“You can’t just say that something works – you have to be able to demonstrate it,” said Schäfer. That’s where the Proof of Concept grants come in, said Eekhout: not only do they bridge the gap between the lab and the field, they also help in translating technology into business models.

What can industry do to help? Dieny suggested exchanges between industry and laboratories so that both sides can understand each other more. Schäfer agreed: Europe needs an informal platform to encourage collaboration and what he called “the flux of information”.

Europe, it was agreed, is behind the US on this. One key difference, said Eekhout, is internships over the summer vacation: “We don’t have this sort of culture in my field in Europe yet,” he said.

In the broader discussion that followed, industry and research chiefs stressed the importance of a European “ecosystem” that facilitates the exchange of ideas.

Otmar Wiestler, president of Germany’s Helmholtz Association, endorsed the idea of bringing industry and researchers together – not just in meetings but for longer periods of time. It will require even greater efforts from both sides in the past to make this work, he argued. But get it together and Europe will gain strong competitive advantage over the US and China.  

People are ready for this, said Karin Dahlman-Wright, vice president of the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. Twenty years ago industry was looking for cheap labour from the universities, and the universities were looking for easy money. “This has changed,” she said. But it does take time: Karolinska has established collaborations with companies including AstraZeneca, but it has taken four years to get that going. It takes time, she said, “to build a dynamic and trustful interface.”

Interestingly, the general feeling was that money, per se, is not the issue, and it is “naïve” to think so, said one research administration chief. The question, said Wiestler, is whether Europe has the means to follow up the results from blue sky research in all the value chains. Another industry representative wanted to know whether once the research delivered, Europe was ready to protect a level playing field – using state aid where necessary. Blue sky research is essential, he said, but we “need to be sure we can mass-scale and compete”.

There was equally frank talk about European venture capital. There’s no shortage of money in general, said Gian-Luca Bona, director of Swiss federal research institute EMPA. Go to meetings in California, he said, and the investors are always there. Meanwhile, asset manager Swiss Life has 35 billion Swiss Francs invested in housing “while we are all struggling for a transition in energy”. The net effect is that there is, in principle, enough money in Europe available for high tech investments, if this were to be pooled into a big fund, he argued. 

There was powerful support for the pleas from the three Proof of Concept grantees for stronger relationships with industry. “We have to spend time learning the language of others, going into industry and back and forth,” said Rémi Quirion, Quebec’s chief scientist.

Perhaps people should take a leaf out of Finland’s book and add an element of compulsion. Pekka Soini, CEO of Business Finland, said that his country was number 1 in Europe – “and probably the world” – in collaboration between industry and academia. One reason: when Business Finland funds a large company it requires collaboration with academia; and when it funds research it demands collaboration with industry.

In the end, it all leads back to the ecosystem. “We need one that inspires people”, said Bourguignon: “younger people need to believe that, if they invest in a research career, it will be worth it. That means defending the idea that it’s not just the amount of money you are putting in, but what perspectives you are offering”.

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