Viewpoint The Badische Company complex - what can the UK learn from Fraunhofer?

Materials World magazine
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26 Nov 2013

Could the UK learn from the largest applied research organisation in Europe? Simon Andrews, Deputy Head of the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, thinks so.

In his recent report, a review of universities and growth, Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline and Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, UK, suggests universities should facilitate economic growth by developing and commercialising technologies as part of their existing strategy. Calls to improve collaboration have consistently been made in the UK since the turn of the 20th Century, when leaders in the scientific establishment were studying Germany because it was successfully using its best scientific research to drive industry.

One frequently cited example is the remarkable growth of the artificial dye industry. In just 35 years, the Badische Company in Mannheim, Germany, had grown to employ 6,000 staff and 148 trained scientists. This success was based on a British discovery in 1856. Chemist William Henry Perkin had found that aniline, extracted from coal tar, could be used to make intense colouring agents. But Britain was too slow to carry out the R&D necessary to commercialise this amazing discovery. The Badische Company employed a university researcher to carry out applied studies that eventually led to a wide range of artificial dyes with huge commercial opportunities. Now, 150 years later, BASF is the largest chemical company in the world.

In a review of university–industry collaborations in 2012, Sir Tim Wilson, former Vice-Chancellor, at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, highlighted some of the reasons such collaborations fail. Wilson noted that universities lacked the right skill set to deliver on business needs, so their ways of working and timescales didn’t always match. But to work effectively with industry, the UK needs to be focused on delivery and work to contract timescales. The Fraunhofer Institutes work in exactly this way and must be embraced if we are to deliver the ambitions contained in the Witty Review. Sitting at the interface between universities and business, they are adept at delivering research contracts for industry while working closely with pioneering university researchers. The Fraunhofer Society has developed its approach over 60 years. With success in many countries, including the USA, Portugal, Italy and Chile, it is a model that has been proven to work in varying economic environments.

Fraunhofer receives 30–40% of its income from industry contracts and 20–30% from publicly funded research (EU projects and the German equivalent of the TSB). The rest comes from the German Government and is matched to the industrial income it receives, Euro for Euro, giving a large incentive to succeed and grow.

The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, was established in April 2012. The laser has made enormous technical, practical and economic progress since its first demonstration just over 50 years ago. The UK has a wealth of academic excellence and globally competitive companies working in many laser and optical areas. But there is a multitude of commercial opportunities that have not yet been explored.

Innovation in photonics continues to accelerate, mirroring advances in optical materials. While silicon is the ubiquitous answer for modern electronics, photonic innovation has enjoyed the diversity of gases, liquids, solid-state crystals, semiconductor materials and, more recently, soft polymers. These soft materials are beginning to be explored for a variety of applications where their flexibility may allow novel fixed shapes, printed photonics and adaptation to the human profile or changeable performance characteristics. Recent advances in diamond have also increased interest in diamond lens arrays, optical heat spreaders and waveguides. In addition, diamond’s non-linear properties have given us diamond Raman lasers.

The UK’s Photonics Leadership Group recently published figures on the industry’s significance to the UK economy. The sector comprises 70,000 employees across 1,500 companies, generating £10.5bln.

The Fraunhofer model could help materials specialists fuel innovation and contribute to the competitiveness of the UK. But intermediate centres such as this need long-term financial commitment from the Government to enable them to grow in the future and achieve Witty’s dream of an invention revolution in Britain.