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10 June 2019

Win-win projects with private industry

Through partnerships with industry, scientists may generate financial support that provides benefits for both sides, former TWAS research grant winner Tatas Brotosudarmo said at a workshop in Nepal.

Innovative, brave and locally-oriented, with strong industrial partnerships ­– these are qualities essential for a good scientist, says Indonesian photochemist Tatas Brotosudarmo. They allow scientists to make their research more innovative and create opportunities to move the results from bench to market.

Brotosudarmo, a 2012 TWAS research grant awardee, was a speaker in the TWAS Research Grants workshop, which ran from 4-7 June in Kathmandu, Nepal. The workshops sought to expose scientists from Least Developed Countries – all of them past awardees of the TWAS Research Grants programme ­– to ideas and stimuli that could make their careers more robust.

The event was generously supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which has provided key support to TWAS since 1991.

To learn new tools that are important in scientific research but which universities often do not teach, more than 40 participants convened in Nepal from 11 developing countries, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Mongolia and Sri Lanka in South Asia, and Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela and Guatemala in Latin America.

Brotosudarmo obtained his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Then he carried out post-doctoral research working in an exchange programme called Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) at Northwestern University in the United States.

He has specialized in photosynthetic pigments, coloured molecules commonly found in nature, which are important for health and could be innovative tools to produce renewable bio-energy.

Upon his return to Indonesia, he struggled to set up his own laboratory. But after he received a TWAS Research Grant, in 2012, he could change his vision and his approach to research. Today, Brotosudarmo works as a principal investigator at the Ma Chung research centre for photosynthetic pigments at Ma Chung University in Indonesia. He advocates linking basic science to industry because, he says, learning how to sell good research to companies may widen not only individual perspectives, but those of an entire nation.

His presentation at the TWAS conference in Nepal was titled "Transformational research: links with industry". In an interview with TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra, Brotosudarmo offered his thoughts on the importance of innovation and explained the approach scientists should adopt in building collaborations with the private sector. 

You say that today, more than in the past, research needs strong partnerships with industry. Why?

In the past, research was mainly focused on the curiosity of what was happening in nature, which is what we may call a serendipity-driven innovation. Recently, research has evolved moving towards targeted innovation, setting goals that we can measure through the return on innovation and, of course, the return on investment. Therefore, business strategy, innovation strategy, focused resources, and innovative culture – all these are inputs for the current research process.

When we imagine a more sustainable and human-centred future society, may we hope that a supporting role comes from research-industry collaborations?

Yes. I think that, in the future, scientific research will play an even more important role to support our society: Big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will fuse into every industry and across all social segments. That's why tomorrow's research should anticipate and tackle this new approach. And this is why I talk of transformational research: research that involves ideas, discoveries or inventions that have an impact in driving society. We, as scientists, need industry as our partner to turn ideas, discoveries and invention into innovation that reaches out to people, and people can get the benefit of our research results.

In 2012, you received a TWAS Research Grant. Did it change your professional life?

Certainly it did. I received a TWAS Research Grant at a time when my research was very difficult to carry out. I used this grant to convince the Board of Founders of Ma Chung University that my research was unique and distinctive internationally. This has changed my life as the board of founders supported me to establish the research & development building of the Ma Chung research centre for photosynthetic pigments.

Why do you say your research is unique?

I try not to do common research, but locally-oriented research. Let me explain. I work on natural photosynthetic pigments, which are common in nature. They give not only beautiful colours, but can be important for human health. When I decided to focus on pigments it was because I had made a market survey, and realized that people are much more careful about their health. In all the food we eat there are artificial colour additives: in ice-creams, food for children, etc. People are more aware than in the past, but they do not want artificial chemicals in their food anymore.

Did the TWAS grant promote professional collaborations between your group and industries?

Yes, it did. Currently, there are three industries that work with my group: One company is based in Singapore, and supports equipment purchase. Another is from Munich, Germany; it finances one of my projects aimed at monitoring biodiversity and the health of nature with remote sensing technologies, to improve sustainable management of farming within natural resources. Within this project we also work with several stakeholders: local aquaculture farmers, standardisation agencies, and aeronautics and space agencies. The third is a manufacturer of Indonesian oils, oleoresins and natural products involved in scale-extraction of carotenoids and other natural products using a green solvent. By partnering with them I have a lot of advantages, especially in knowledge transfer. Besides, industries are important for my research also because they are sensitive about past and current market demands, and in making  predictions about the future.

Many scientists do not engage in partnerships with industry and big companies because they fear they will be taken advantage of. Speaking at the TWAS Research Grants workshop in Kathmandu, have you offered any advice on the importance of overcoming this feeling?

I suggested that, first, a scientist needs to have a strong entrepreneurial personality, willing to take risks and work on challenges. At the same time, he or she needs to learn laws and regulations concerning the protection of the discoveries (intellectual property, or IP) and how to deal with profit-sharing. This can be learned from our colleagues who study law. But most important is to be clear when endorsing a contract. Of course, before we approach an industry or before we are approached, it is better to study the company profile in detail, including their financial report.

Did you use any tools to help scientists understand the importance of industrial liaisons?

At the TWAS workshop I played a game of mind-mapping: it is an exercise used as an adult learning method, very useful to get people to engage and to share their experiences in a way that will enrich others, as well. With this, we can learn each other's views or opinions about what transformational research is.

What message do you think they have they taken home for the future?

The message I hope I have conveyed has three concepts. To attract industry, scientists need to create their own research uniqueness and research business, including the capacity to conduct research well. Secondly, to ensure that partnership is fruitful, they need to prepare a clear contract and protect their work with patents. Finally, they need to be selective towards partnership, choosing those aiming at a long-term and win-win collaboration.

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