University and Industry Joint R&D: A Benchmarking Trip Discovery

I started my 2015 European benchmarking tour with a notion last November of visiting some of the physics labs I had been reading about in Technology Review and R&D e-zines. My colleagues and I have designed many physics and nanotechnology labs over the last few years, and I was intrigued by what seems to be the quest for a new holy grail – the Majorana fermion – that would change technology and society as we know it. The ultimate quantum computing device, if successful would solve many of society’s problems by taming some very strange physical behaviors of electrons and turning them into functional electronics that excel exponentially over current integrated circuit design while consuming far less power.  More simply, it was a theme for a road trip to Europe to possibly discover different lab design thinking.

The focus of the trip was to be state-of-the-art condensed matter physics labs intermixed with semiconductor cleanrooms, imaging suites and materials science research facilities. This focus was broadened when we extended the tour to include the new Paris-Saclay campus and a destination in Germany to visit some of the Max Planck and Fraunhofer institutes. After settling on Dresden as our host city in Germany, we finalized our tour itinerary as follows:

  • Paris-Saclay University
  • TU Delft
  • The Neils Bohr Institute, Copenhagen
  • TU Dresden
  • Zurich: ETH and IBM Zurich – Binnig Rohrer Nanotechnology Center

I have made several benchmarking tours as a professional architect and have found that what you set out looking for doesn’t necessarily turn out to be the most interesting or thought-provoking – this tour proved no different. I did indeed find plenty of dilution refrigerators to satisfy my curiosity and round out my lab design toolbox for the benefit of future client users, but I also had the occasion to ponder how research and development is a complex social, cultural and organizational phenomenon that extends beyond the confines of university walls. My travel colleagues and I were surprised to find a variety of industry partners that are seeking physical proximity to the academic campus to promote R&D activities. This new model appears most dynamic at Paris-Saclay and TU Dresden where campus planning has allowed such growth to occur in a deliberate way, while responding to the changing focus of science and technology communities. The new model, as I heard more than once while traveling, is an attempt to recreate the uniquely innovative phenomenon of Silicon Valley where pure research, combined with engineering know-how, combined with entrepreneurial vision rocketed computers into everyday culture 35 years ago.

When you arrive, your first impression of the Paris-Saclay campus is “where is it?” You see a vast stretch of cultivated farmland that will be the site for the new campus, but this is deceiving because the perimeter is occupied by existing academic institutions, and the gaps will be filled by new Paris-Saclay University buildings along with its many corporate partners. On the west is the CEA, France’s atomic energy commission, and on the east is the École Polytechnique, its elite military engineering school. To the south is the national research center CNRS specializing in the biosciences and Paris South, a well-known research university that has a track record in technology transfer in the life sciences as well as nanoscience and physics. All of these institutions are playing a role in the founding of the Paris-Saclay campus.

As an introduction to the new French model of academic/industry partnership, our group was shown a new building model designed by Behnisch Architekten, built in multiple locations on the Saclay campus with customized variations. At one, NanoINNOV, we visited incubator spaces of about 3,000 square feet for robotics, detection systems and virtual reality. Each laboratory has dedicated feeds for all building services and separate ground level perimeter access with overhead doors. The buildings have an office park modularity with panelized exteriors and operable windows providing night time flushing operation for energy efficiency. The interiors have large atria to accommodate social interaction among the research community. At Digiteo, another variation on the same design, the community unites researchers from twelve institutions of higher learning to work on information and communication technology projects with the aim of promoting and transferring intellectual output to startups for commercialization.

At NanoINNOV, the CEA has a technology showroom where it displays spinoff technology from its elite cadre of engineers just one campus over to the west. Founded in 1957 by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie (son-in-law and daughter of Marie Curie), the CEA has expanded its research into information and health technologies, low-carbon energy, defense and security, and has created regional technology transfer platforms under the moniker CEA Tech. CEA Tech’s theme is “From Research to Industry,” and its Saclay showroom boasts digital technologies for software integration in advanced manufacturing processes as well as software and system design validation.

On the CEA campus itself, we visited Neurospin, designed by Claude Vasconi, the architect of Les Halles in the center of Paris. Despite having a rather negative opinion of his mediocre post-modernist substitution of a subterranean mall for the iron-and-glass Baltard central market demolished in 1971, I was impressed by the sinuous and functional lines of his magnetic resonance and imaging (MRI) facility for translational neuroscience research. Here is another example of how the specialized expertise of the CEA scientific community in the area of magnetism and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is contributing to other spinoff multidisciplinary research and clinical applications. Volunteers and patients come regularly to participate in the research and there are special facilities for children as well as adults.

Blog Benchmarking European Lab Tour University and Industry Joint R&D

If Paris-Saclay has located its new megacampus in a green field site well outside the urban center of Paris, the city of Dresden in eastern Germany has integrated its renowned research institutes and Technical University (TU) within the city limits. Dresden is the center of industrial and technological output of the state of Saxony and has many large corporate parks on the outskirts of the city such as Infineon Technologies, one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers in Europe. Our group was able to visit several facilities that demonstrated a range of R&D activity – from complex systems theory at the Max Planck Institute to safety applications within the transportation industry at the Fraunhofer Institute. Fortunately, we also were able to enjoy the historical buildings of the city core which have been painstakingly reconstructed after the 1945 firebombing during World War II.

Our tour of Dresden R&D started with BioInnovationsZentrum, a business incubator that provides the laboratory infrastructure and financing for life science initiatives, especially in the area of molecular bioengineering. After visiting the Center for Regenerative Therapies, we toured the adjacent incubator labs where our host outlined the steps for technology transfer. A startup company will receive proof-of-concept funding from the government for three years to demonstrate that an idea is viable. If successful, the technology, process or device will attract new capital for scale-up production – if not successful, the research group is free to return to their former research environment in academia. This formula is designed to maximize the flow of pure research toward real-world applications while minimizing the risks of startup capitalization and/or career disruption.

NaMLab was a university-industry joint venture founded in 2006 and is now a TU Dresden company funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. It is a cleanroom facility that specializes in the integration and application of semiconductor materials expertise focusing particularly on energy-efficient devices. The NaMLab is collaborating with the Fraunhofer Institute and Global Foundries to integrate these new device designs into next generation computer memory.  Next door at the Fraunhofer Institute (for Machine Tools and Forming), application-driven research in the field of production technologies is optimizing car body and powertrain components in the automotive industry. During our walk-through, we saw samples of “smart” materials which can act as mechanical actuators by converting material properties through application of electric current, temperature, light, etc.

Blog Benchmarking European Lab Tour University and Industry Joint R&D

On the last day of our tour we had the opportunity to visit the IBM Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center (BRNC) in Rüschlikon just outside Zurich. This was a fitting terminus for the tour as it is where Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) for which they received the Nobel prize in 1986. The STM, which provides direct observation of atomic-scale surface phenomena, has enabled the revolution in nanotechnology, and the concurrent evolution of dilution refrigerator design continues to enable more precise analysis of quantum phenomena at temperatures close to absolute zero. At the BRNC our generous hosts shared with us a few details on how IBM Zurich and ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, partner on high technology research platforms. Some ETH researchers have labs within the BRNC and are given access to the cleanroom and characterization (microscope) suite for which ETH contributes some of the operating expenses. IBM benefits as well by attracting leading talent in nanotechnology and sharing in the intellectual property developed with its collaborators.

Blog Benchmarking European Lab Tour University and Industry Joint R&D

It was revealing to visit these facilities and appreciate how academic environments focusing on science and technology are integrating private and government R&D space either directly within the campus environment or in adjacent urban settings. The physical proximity of shared resources, both infrastructural and intellectual makes for efficient collaboration and innovation. It gives the university access to more sophisticated tools for discovery and gives private industry access to the intellectual capital that is nurtured in a community of higher learning. The Silicon Valley model that has been cited as a goal was created around Stanford University – Europe and other countries would like to emulate the synergies of the university-industry complex and have already done so in their own manner, which generally relies more heavily on government funding to drive R&D activities beyond the domain of pure research. We witnessed this in both France and Germany where the complexities and layers of national laboratory participation seem staggering at times.

Conversely, here in the USA where our academic research engine is the envy of the world, government funding has been stagnant as a percentage of overall discretionary funding for the last 40 years (with the exception of the ARRA stimulus package in the post-2008 economic downturn). Increased funding streams from industry may be able to provide additional research support and revenue and drive similar partnerships as we saw at Paris-Saclay, TU Dresden and IBM Zurich. If such enhanced collaboration is to occur, we can imagine that pure research will increasingly focus downstream toward “innovation” for real-world applications and products, whereas business will find an inexpensive source of R&D muscle in the extended graduate and post-doctorate network that sustains scientific discovery in the university environment.

We can also imagine that this enhanced research environment might revolve around the state-of-the-art technology platforms that both academia and industry covet and without which the evolution of scientific research is not possible: materials science and pharmaceutical cleanrooms, genome sequencing facilities, big data computational nodes and sophisticated imaging equipment. As architects who work for university clients, we on our side might imagine how such collaborative work environments could bridge the gap between pure knowledge and applied technologies for human progress – and, of course, how these social environments in turn can be expressed and enhanced by our building designs.

Additional reading: “The New Normal in Funding University Science”, Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. XXX Issue 1, Fall 2013





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