Knowledge valorisation puts research results to work for a greener, fairer society

While knowledge itself is good, it’s even better when it’s applied to help solve the big challenges facing our societies. Many components must come together to ensure research has a lasting impact on society.

Science overflows with questions, but also brims with answers. For example, decades of meticulous research enabled multiple vaccines to be rolled out at an unprecedented pace during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Science also provided evidence as to which public behaviours and practical measures reduce the spread of the virus – such as good ventilation and and the design and use of face coverings to help reduce contagion factors.

In 2020, research and development spending in EU countries was €311 billion. Knowledge generated in Europe should benefit the people of Europe and beyond. While it is the job of scientists to generate such knowledge, others can assist in taking it out into society, notes Christophe Haunold, head of knowledge and technology transfer at the University of Luxembourg.

It is a question of how we use that knowledge. ‘This is valorisation,’ said Haunold.

Knowledge valorisation is defined as the process of creating value from knowledge by linking different areas and sectors. It transforms data and research results into sustainable products and solutions that benefit society. It improves economic prosperity, environmental benefits, social progress and policy making.

‘We want research results to create impact for society,’ said Jurgen Joossens, Head of the Valorisation Office (TTO) at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. His university focuses on valorisation in three areas: infectious diseases and environmental health, smart city and sustainable chemistry and materials.

The office has established links to the port of Antwerp, an important petrochemical site in Europe. Rather than researchers deciding how their results can be used by industry (a push approach), the Antwerp unit focuses also on what society wants – the so-called ‘flip approach’.

For example, in 2016, Professor Maarten Weyn developed a telemetric badge that could locate a person in a chemical plant and alert controllers if they fell or had an accident. But industry and unions foresaw privacy problems in tracking employees in this way.

Following a round of consultations with the chemical industry in Antwerp, Weyn redesigned the badge into a sensor that measures position, temperature and vibrations from valves within chemical plants.

A company – Aloxy – has taken the professor’s technology forward and issuing it in site trials in Europe, the US and the Middle East. ‘Because he was open and listening to their needs, he was able to reform the technology and solve a problem he wasn’t aware of,’ says Joossens.

EU Valorisation Week

Co-organised by the EU Member States and the European Commission, the EU Knowledge Valorisation Week will run from 29 March to 1 April, 2022. It will bring together and share expertise amongst experts and stakeholders from all over Europe. It will showcase best examples of policies and tools that improve investments, capacities and skills for rapid progress in the uptake of research-based solutions. Stakeholders have helped shape the programme by sharing their best practices.

Haunold will moderate a session that looks at how to fund inventions and business ideas during the proof-of-concept phase. This is after the research phase, but before something has been demonstrated to a level where a company is willing to get involved.

Transforming basic scientific discoveries into a product or service is frequently a major sticking point. Because scientists usually don’t have the skills or time to devote to this piece, as they are busy doing what they are best at – research.

‘What we expect from scientists is to be very good scientists,’ said Haunold. ‘But there can be a wide range of skills that they don’t have but which we can assist them with.’

This is when entrepreneurs and scientists can lean on the knowledge contained in the technology transfer offices (TTOs). These offices support the commercialisation of research work. Technology transfer offices help researchers communicate about their projects, file patents and assist in negotiations over technology transfer and the use of intellectual property.

Creating a new company to exploit an idea is not always feasible. Sometimes academic organisations will partner with commercial and public partners. The TTOs can help to arrange licensing for a discovery to existing companies. This can generate revenue from new products or services.

Intellectual property

‘If a researcher interacts with a company, they will not have to carry all the burden of negotiating with parts of that company, such as legal or intellectual property issues,’ said Haunold.

A success story from Luxembourg involves Dr Tahereh Pazouki, who created a mathematics educational tool for children when she was a PhD student. She was targeting a diverse linguistic community, one with several languages in daily use.

‘In Luxembourg, we have many languages and many cultures,’ said Haunold. ‘She developed a tool that allows children learn mathematics without the basic language.’ 

She received proof-of-concept funding, and the knowledge transfer office negotiated and provided all the intellectual property rights.

Her company, Magrid, now sells the tool all over the world. It is suited to migratory children not proficient in the language of instruction or children with special needs, such as those with autism, dyslexia or hearing or speech difficulties.

Advice on entrepreneurship will be shared during the session entitled ‘Translating the vision into action’. Ivan Štefanić, professor at Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek in Croatia, runs an educational programme called Be the Role Model which entrepreneurial researchers may find very useful. The session takes place on 30 March 2022.

Entrepreneurial skills

To encourage an entrepreneurial environment means fostering a culture and positive mindset, not just technical skills. ‘When you’re surrounded by people who complain about everything, you start complaining as well,’ said Štefanić.

‘If you see people taking changes, making bold moves, and achieving something,’ he said, ‘That could spark you on the right path.’

He himself set up a business development centre in Croatia in 2002, but instead of waiting for people to walk through the door, he developed the Be the Role Model programme.

Living lab

Sometimes, you need the input of citizens in real life situations to see if an innovation will work. In Finland, a living laboratory for food and sustainability has been set up on the campus of the Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK).

Mikael Lindell, who leads the FUSSILI project on urban food systems, reveals that this April, the university cafeteria will serve experimental recipes based on ingredients that benefit the planet. It follows the EAT-Lancet diet which targets healthy diets and sustainable food production.

The project aims to reduce meat content and include more local produce in its recipes. A large local food manufacturer is involved while, crucially, staff and students on campus will be able to give feedback on their sustainable lunch fare.

In the Netherlands, Dr Linda van de Burgwal is the director of a demonstrator lab at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She herself is a serial entrepreneur who has set up multiple companies. ‘We set up a risk free environment,’ she said. ‘We see it as learning-by-doing.’

Those who enrol must present a business idea and then work on it, with regular progress check-ins. Mentoring is an essential component.

‘After five years we have had 100 projects, and 20 have registered with the [local] chamber of commerce,’ said van de Burgwal.

Ideas have included breath sensors for early detection of livestock disease, a virtual human rights lawyer and more ergonomic furniture for children.

She stresses that entrepreneurship doesn’t just help when setting up your own business. It ‘gives a set of problem solving skills that is valuable in whatever role you have,’ she said. ‘Entrepreneurship is creating something that has value, and those skills are relevant across sectors,’ said van de Burgwal.

Valorisation does not always refer to turning knowledge into products and services. It also involves informing policy changes, improving processes or educating the general public. 

Teaming up

Knowledge transfer and validation requires many skills. ‘We need multidisciplinary teams,’ says Joossens, ‘Because sometimes it’s forgotten that it’s not only about the technology, but it’s also about implementation of the technology.’ This requires a complex milieu of expertise, to support knowledge creators and ensure impact.

‘There’s also society involved, there are processes, rules, laws, which are involved,’ he said.

Businesses can fail for financial reasons, and hard-nosed advice for would-be entrepreneurs is essential.

Štefanić says those setting up companies should create an intellectual property plan at an early stage. ‘Often entrepreneurs do it only when they unknowingly infringe someone’s intellectual property or someone copies them,’ he said. ‘That is a very reactive approach.’

Draw talent

He believes Europe can also draw in talent from the rest of the world by creating the right environment for entrepreneurs. ‘We can attract people from other locations and help them achieve what they couldn’t locally,’ he said. ‘So it is also about growing successful business and making Europe a desirable destination,’ he said.

The Knowledge Valorisation Week is an opportunity to raise awareness and take stock of the current work on upgrading EU guidance for better knowledge valorisation. There is an EU knowledge valorisation platform to share best practices, knowledge and expertise. It includes a repository of best practices, to which stakeholders can submit their examples any time.  

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.