Three voices on collaboration and utilisation

The benefits of research for growth and competitiveness are hugely important. Here Johan Schnürer, vice-chancellor of Örebro University, Jenny Elfsberg, head of Innovation Management at Vinnova and former Volvo Group executive. and Johan Ödmark, CEO of Swedish Incubators & Science Parks answer three questions about utilisation, innovation and co-production between academia and the business sector.

Interview with Johan Schnürer

How do you see collaboration between academia and the business sector?
“Collaboration between academia and the business sector is crucial to safeguarding Sweden’s future economy, prosperity and environment. Collaboration is part of the statutory duty of academia and very often leads to completely new, exciting research questions. But – to safeguard long-term scientific development, it’s also essential that universities have space for purely researcher-driven projects.”

Where do the biggest challenges lie?
“Finding time that enables people to understand each other’s conditions, needs and timescales. Another condition is sufficient basic funding for the universities’ research, partly to manage co-financing for collaboration and enable career development for young researchers.”

What does collaboration look like when it works best?
“Collaboration works best when it’s built on mutual respect and is long term. My best example of this is the biotech company Biogaia, whose billion kronor business is based on a (targeted) ‘accidental discovery’ at the Microbiology Department at SLU. The company is still working with the research team at SLU 30 years later.”

Interview with Jenny Elfsberg

How do you see collaboration between academia and the business sector?
“The optimum collaboration between academia and the business sector is one that’s established and long term, with give and take. Academia needs industry and industry needs academia, and that isn’t just about research questions but also education, provision of competence and access to grants for bold investments. As someone who comes from industry and is also an industrial graduate student, I find it easy to see the value of these worlds ‘colliding’; the different perspectives, the different conditions and conflicts between goals that are manageable create a beneficial and important dynamic. Especially now – in this crucial decade, when the whole world needs to manage the transition to sustainability for future generations.”

Where do the biggest challenges lie?
“The classic challenge of being operational here and now while taking a long-term approach naturally affects all kinds of co-operation. There are naturally also issues inherent in projectification that present a challenge when taking a long-term approach and cause a great deal of administrative work for researchers in both academia and in industry, which partly has to do with how government funding rules are structured, but is also to do with a tradition of not really having the courage to create shared long-term plans.

“But what I still believe is that the most difficult challenge in the Swedish context is our attraction to the comfort zone and conformity. Our cultural pattern drives us towards ‘birds of a feather flock together’, but the type of collaboration and research that is really needed requires different perspectives, different capacities and different roles.

“We need to be more system-oriented in our research efforts. Up until now, you could muddle along and take care of your own role in the system and carry on working in isolation, but now we know that isn’t enough to get us where we need to be. This is why we need to be more collaborative and ideally at an earlier stage – thinking together, identifying shared goals that address potential conflicts between goals, and which provide clear guidelines to strive for – sometimes side by side, sometimes together. When it’s together/interactively, it’s a collaboration that’s beneficial.”

What does collaboration look like when it works best?
“I’m incredibly impressed by smaller universities that had the motivation and the capacity to meet the company where we were, and not only propose research collaborations but also point to off-the-shelf solutions that are already established and don’t require research, as well as to other alternatives in academia, where cutting-edge expertise is available elsewhere.

“I’m also convinced that companies must understand that they have a responsibility in relation to universities – if they are to have access to the research, they also need to be a solution for first-cycle programmes and create opportunities for study visits, student projects and thesis placements. When you work together all the way, you establish an understanding of each other’s strengths and needs and in fact create a basis for expanding the partnership with more partners – academic and industrial. Sweden is a small country with amazing capabilities – it would be fantastic if we could see each other as potential partners and not as competitors. We can compete for talent, resources and finances while being part of the same national team.”

Interview with Johan Ödmark

How do you see collaboration between academia and the business sector?
“Part of Sweden’s competitive advantage is that we are actually often good at getting different sectors and industries to interact, and collaboration is important, of course. But it mustn’t be collaboration for collaboration’s sake. That can end up as a collective headache. There is also a need for clear commitments that mean that the benefit is mutual. That’s how interaction happens!”

Where do the biggest challenges lie?
“Big structures and organisations can sometimes find it difficult to open up to the outside world. It takes people who can cross the boundaries to make it happen. This kind of function is vital for science parks and incubators, for example. Another challenge is that whatever organisations and structures we build up, leadership is ultimately crucial. If we have key personnel who prefer to do things internally and don’t want to share, our examples of collaboration will obviously not be any good. And naturally resources and incentives are vital too.”

What does collaboration look like when it works best?
“The best example is when clear missions are translated into concrete tools. Ignite Sweden that matches startups with major companies is one successful example. Another successful example in my sphere is all the science parks and incubators that are really being used by the universities for utilisation and collaboration. The universities that aren’t doing that are missing out on a lot of potential.”

tre porträtt på en man, en kvinna och en man
Fr.l. Johan Schnürer, principal Örebro university, Jenny Elfsberg, head of Innovation management at Vinnova and former senior positions within Volvo concern and Johan Ödmark, ceo Swedish Incubators & Science Parks


You can also watch the Knowledge Foundation’s webcast after the panel discussion “How collaboration contributes to business benefits” where, in addition to the above, Nortvolt’s environmental manager Emma Nehrenheim also participated. The panel discussion was included as part of the Knowledge Foundation’s autumn launch in 2021.

How collaboration contributes to business benefits (Swedish)

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