Science and industry

The reciprocal co-operation between basic science and industry forms a complex, but highly relevant conjugation for the future innovative power of society, both regionally, nationally and globally.

The great innovative power of ‘yesteryear’, which in the Netherlands previously came from research departments of large international companies, such as the world-renowned Philips NatLab by Hendrik Casimir or research divisions from Shell, Unilever, etc. must nowadays come from both academia and strategic links in fundamental research between the academic world and the industry. One of the exceptions has always been IBM Corporation, with its world-class Research division; IBM has persisted in continuing its activities in basic science independently, but for a significant part also through collaborations with academia all over the world. Companies such as Microsoft (e.g. with its Station Q Quantum labs in Delft and California) and Google Research for Artificial Intelligence have also picked up the trend of more basic research in the IT industry. The future in this area clearly lies in strategic-scientific collaborations between academia and research aspirations of the industry; they should now provide the answers to the demand for an alternative to the previous industrial basic research and the innovation power it created in the past.
The difference is that the industrial relationships are also becoming more vital for the future of top-level science, and vice versa. The international trend seems that these two (academia and industry) are growing closer. The trick is to properly organise and manage those connections, or collaborations, while maintaining mutual sovereignty, intellectual property and the integrity of foundations and beliefs.

Large companies of interest in this context are those with a fundamental research facility of its own that is well fit for this. But also those companies with a research agenda that is formed in in a private/public scientific context can very well contribute here. DSM (research into innovative materials) and ASML (with its Advanced Research Center Nano Lithography) are good examples of that. The same goes for a computational science programme that Shell founded with FOM (and today runs with NWO). However, across the board, such research architectures are still quite limited. Science and industry in general need to be coached in finding each other on this path and in being able to keep trusting each other on these territories. On the one hand by protecting independent fundamental research, on the other by making use of opportunities to connect science and industry where these fit strategically and organisationally well and create mutual benefits. Both academia and industry will benefit optimally, but only when this is built up strategically from the beginning.
In Silicon Valley this has been the case for quite many years, especially for digital technology. In other fields of science, it is still a novelty to enter into such collaborations. It also requires the right mindset. If you find it, however, it offers collaborative opportunities into multiple areas of science. This not only applies to domains like medicine and mathematics. For example, in this era of data-driven technological developments, legal sciences and law firms can also work together to explore new insights, for which there is no case law yet at hand. Kennedy Van der Laan in Amsterdam is a law firm with a focus on technology that explicitly focuses on this and therefore is reaching out to academia to make it happen.

It is, in fact, right where fundamental research and industry meet - and work together - that they often develop long lasting relationships. There have been examples that this can go on for decades, entailing an enormous economic influx for the regions and countries in which they take place. It is called science economics. California is a US state which has a healthy economy for exactly that reason. But Philips in the Eindhoven region and Shell and its academic relations have always been good examples for The Netherlands. And there are more examples of this from the past, e.g. the development of the Von Neumann computer and IBM. Today in the Netherlands, these include again collaborations in the Eindhoven region revolving around the TU / E, Start-up Delta in Amsterdam. And last, but by no means least, the DOME Project - a collaboration between IBM Research in Switzerland and ASTRON, with a new radio telescope in South Africa and Australia as a dot on the horizon - lasted six years in the second decade of twenty-first century and was also a good example of this for the north-eastern region of the Netherlands, in combination with international Dutch outreach and due exposure.
In Switzerland, the relationship between ETH and IBM Zurich Research (four Nobel Prize winners of which one is also a Kavli laureate) has been working along these lines for many years. It always leads to major innovations and economic development. Moreover, the first computer, based on the Von Neumann architecture, was created the same way in 1952; from a public-private-scientific collaboration between the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, the State of New Jersey and the IBM Watson Research labs, following the first scientific publication on this as early on as 1945, by John von Neumann.

Medium-sized and smaller companies can very well commit to specific elements of long-term collaborations between large industrial parties with top-scientific institutions or academia, as part of the value chain. They make vital contributions to economic development and employment and are often highly innovative. These small to medium-sized companies can benefit by participating and following the developments in large public-private-scientific collaborations (for which they themselves lack critical capacity to start-up and collaborate in those on their own). Sometimes only to learn, sometimes to develop a specific component for themselves when knowledge suddenly becomes available when a large industrial party enters into a collaboration with one or more scientific partners. The latter can come in various forms, of course, which you need to formalise properly in a contract. After all, each party wants its existing intellectual property (background) to be protected and well-defined to make that possible. The same goes for joint new (foreground) IP. If done properly, it offers governments ample opportunity to provide incentives or to stimulate such collaborations financially.


Helmholtz Gemeinschaft
max planck gesellschaft
Humboldt Universität
Radboud universiteit
University of Twente