concrete effects of Wärtsilä

When two worlds collide

Though complex, industry collaboration with the academic world is rapidly changing. Looking for a win-win situation is in both parties’ interest, but can the different starting points be overlooked?

Text: Anna Gustafsson Photo: Aalto University, Adolfo Vera

Wärtsilä has longstanding and fruitful, ongoing collaboration with several top global universities around the world. Co-operation varies from joint research projects, research for funding and from traineeships to direct recruitment.

However, the core interest for the collaboration can be different for industry and university partners. Industry looks at things from the customer point-of-view, seeking innovations and solutions that can be commercialized. The academic side values top-level research and the number of scientific publications. Some common ground, however, can be found, and that is what motivates R&D Manager in Noise & Vibration Carlo Pestelli, in Wärtsilä Italy’s Technology department.

“From day one, I have been interested in university involvement in my work,” Pestelli says enthusiastically. “Wärtsilä is an incredible company, in the sense that it gives a lot of freedom to look for suitable collaborations. I think this is a Scandinavian thing.”

Academic freedom still an issue

In addition to the actual motivation for the research, the question of academic freedom can be a potential minefield. Within the academic world, some still think that working with business goes against the very idea of academic freedom. Also, the independence of basic research, the backbone of any university, must be protected. Collaboration with the business side, however, can take many forms and give the university autonomy in the way it conducts the actual research.

Dr. Victoria Galan-Muros, from the Munich Business School in Germany, has broad, international expertise in university-business co-operation, both as an academic and a consultant to governments, universities and the business side. She leads studies on the subject for the European Commission, analysing university collaborations with corporations over the years.

The main driver for collaboration has not changed, she says, but the aim is now more towards long-term strategic partnership between equal partners. Some academics can be disapproving of research that already has an application, but end-user inspired research also can be academically top-level.

“While some blue-sky research is still needed at universities, a higher percentage of researchers should consider market and societal needs and aim for a more direct impact on economic development,” Dr. Victoria Galan-Muros reminds.

The biggest difference between universities and industry is the mind-set of time, Wärtsilä’s R&D Manager, Carlo Pestelli, says.

“Some universities can do an excellent job, but market-wise and competition-wise, they can be too slow. The world is much faster now, and there is no time to wait for research papers,” Pestelli describes.

Students want a more practical approach

Both Dr. Victoria Galan-Muros and Wärtsilä’s Carlo Pestelli emphasize that they have seen an obvious change in the curriculum of universities in the past five years or so.

“Universities understand that inserting practical elements into the teaching is highly valuable for the students,” Dr. Galan-Muros says.

Dr. Galan-Muros sees clearly with her own students that they are interested in critical thinking and theory up to a point, but they are also well-aware of the actual skills they need when entering the job market. Input from the industry side into the teaching really helps.

“Students are looking for a much smoother transition into work life,” Dr. Galan-Muros says. “With the job market in Europe as hard as it is, a traineeship in a company gives the student valuable, practical skills that really help them when they graduate.”

Universities pushed to find funding

A lot has changed for universities over the past years. Government funding for the academic world is becoming more restricted, due to the tough economic situation many European governments face. Universities are left to find funding elsewhere. The competition between universities also has gotten fiercer, explains Human Resources Operations Manager Andrea Marino from Wärtsilä Italy.

“Universities now have target numbers, and they are evaluated on how many people they are able to place in the job market. And the competition is not only inside one country but throughout the whole of Europe.”

Carlo Pestelli goes even further to give an example of a university that starts the academic year with only 50% of its funding. The rest they have to find from the market.

“This is a great stimulus for them,” Pestelli says. “This is a smart way to oblige universities to go out and really share their ideas with the industry.”

Who owns the rights?

In addition to uncertainty when it comes to mutual benefits, intellectual property rights can provide a challenge. Most universities prefer to keep patent rights for themselves, as they need the credentials to attract even more high-level students and better funding. Carlo Pestelli believes that the intellectual property rights are best kept by the industry.

“I don’t see how owning the IP-rights really benefits the university. For the industry, on the other hand, it is very clear; intellectual property rights are used for defence against competitors. For universities, I always ask how much money can they really make with it?” Pestelli asks.

The head office of Wärtsilä Italy has had good experiences in making the relationship with universities as personal as possible. In the end, it comes down to human relationships, as External Senior HR Expert Emanuela Fregonese from Wärtsilä Italy explains.

“We are very well organized in our relationships with universities,” she explains. “We meet regularly to establish what the company needs, and we know which university to look to for talent. We really know where to ring the bell, and that helps.”

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