‘The whole of society stands to benefit if we can manage to establish bridges between university and business’

‘The whole of society stands to benefit if we can manage to establish bridges between university and business’


Jordi Alba is the project manager for the Industrial Doctorates Plan, an initiative that started out in 2012 with 17 projects that forged synergies between the academic and business worlds. That is, while graduate students working on their doctorates have access to transferable, remunerated training, the businesses involved also benefit from funding, being at the cutting edge of innovation and the services of new talent.

In 2016, with the project count now up to 243, Alba talks us through why it is that both universities and business owners are keen to make this commitment to their mutual futures.

What advantages do businesses that sign up to take part in the industrial doctorates gain over the competition?

There are three major advantages. The first is that their connection with the academic world allows them to be one step ahead in terms of innovation and provides them with a scientific partner they can turn to for advice the next time a challenge presents itself. The second is the attraction of talent, recruiting people from our universities and around the world and having the opportunity to assess what they are able to offer with regards to the new emerging human capital, and subsequently pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses. And the third advantage comes from accessing a source of funding for their project that is also compatible with others, whether European, national or regional.

How did it all begin?

With a three-man team: Antonio Huerta, full professor at the UPC, who was the original founder; Joan Francesc Córdoba, his executive director, and myself.
We launched a pilot trial in 2012 where we had 17 researchers working across 11 companies, i.e. some companies made the commitment to undertake more than one project. Specifically, SEAT took on five industrial doctorates. As the trial went well, we went on to launch the first public call in 2013.

Have any success stories been produced at this stage?

Indeed! Two doctoral theses have already been defended, both of which were awarded the Cum Laude distinction. The first dealt with a method for utilising construction and demolition waste to make concrete, with all its traditional properties but with high added value as a result of being generated from waste and being sustainable. Escofet acted as the partner, the company that made the pavement tiles for Barcelona's Avinguda Diagonal. The second came from a very different field, humanities, and was a non-profit initiative looking at the female influence in Catalan literary heritage. The aim was to conceptualise female literary heritage, which was underrepresented, and see whether, through the application of a valuation model, society could be made aware of this additional heritage resource.

So, is the initiative open to all companies?

There are no requisites in terms of size or sector, therefore applications are considered whether you are an SME, a start-up, a large company or a research centre spin-off company. Including the public administration itself, a local council, a non-profit foundation... And any field of study is valid, from social sciences to chemical technologies. We have projects dealing with initiatives ranging from Catalan literary heritage, to nanotechnology, to 5G networks. The only requisite is that the company should be interested in developing an R&D project.

What are the requisites as far as student applications are concerned?

There are two main requirements. The first being possession of a suitable profile for developing a research project. This profile (qualifications, language skills, perhaps some previous experience, etc.) is defined by the company and the university or research centre, because the individual will be involved in developing a doctoral thesis and must possess the necessary qualifications to do so. The second requisite is that applicants must have obtained a minimum grade of 6.5 in their doctoral programme admission studies.

Is there any age limit?

No. We have individuals involved who are aged anywhere between 23 and 50, which means there are some more junior researchers and others who are more senior. Something that is important to note, however, is that remuneration is not related to age.

How do you go about forming that academic-business match?

In many cases the university-business partnership has already been formed and they are approaching us because they are interested in embarking on a larger project. Our job in that scenario is to assess the project and provide funding. It is, however, increasingly common for companies to set us a challenge, coming to us with a research project they have in mind but not knowing who they should collaborate with. In those cases we play 'matchmaker' and put forward two or three researchers, via OTRIS, because we do not decide with whom they should develop the project.

At the end of the day it is like when a couple meet: the first day you have coffee, the second, you talk about your life, and the third step is to move in together. When you see that both of you share the same interests, are able to grow, and can implement a common project, that is the point at which an industrial project starts. Although, don't get me wrong, that does not mean that love at first sight doesn't also exist, it does!

Talking of remuneration, how much can researchers expect to receive?

We set a minimum rate which is an average of €22,000 gross for three years. It is an amount which is significantly higher than that of a pre-doctoral fellowship or any other grant for trainee research personnel. It is important that companies do not look at it as an expense but as a medium-term investment. We also stipulate that the researcher should form part of the company workforce, because that generates commitment and the company becomes much more involved.

In the end, the exact remuneration figure is decided between the company and the candidate. What I can say is that, fortunately, companies demonstrate an attitude of commitment and do not usually pay the minimum. They see that they need to adequately remunerate individuals in relation to their value to make it of interest to people involved in research who, at the very least, have a master's degree.

Another thorny question: how is the issue of intellectual property decided?

We don't establish any standard from an administrative standpoint. We ask both the company and the university to determine the rights before applying for funding. As long as that agreement has been signed by the senior management, we are happy.

There are cases of companies, such as one that was interested in entering a field of research with which it was unfamiliar, that plan to collaborate with a research group solely in terms of providing financial input, where it is accepted that 100% of the results generated will belong to the university, since all the knowledge and the majority of the research is carried out by the university. Other times it is shared. What we have not seen yet is a case where the company retains 100% of the industrial property rights.

Do you see this type of transferable training as the way of the future?

Absolutely. It is not enough to be an expert in operational statistics or logistics any more, we need to also be capable of seeking sources of funding, working in teams, protecting research results, etc. To be in possession of skills that can be applied within any business or economic sector. It is a growing area. I myself have learned a lot in terms of transferable skills in recent years. In interacting with companies, researchers, administration at an internal level and with the doctoral students, you have to be able to communicate, to create a training programme that is beneficial on a personal level, and at a team level, to develop management and coordination skills to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Is there also a future for knowledge transfer?

Yes! At a political level it has the backing of all the parties; it is the subject of a Parliamentary motion. And there is a growing awareness on the subject both within companies and universities. We are increasingly being approached with initiatives that do not require action on our part; the parties involved are becoming ever more proactive and involved.

I hope the project continues to be successful, that we are able to invest the anticipated resources and that the demand is there. If we manage to establish these communication bridges between university and business, society as a whole stands to benefit, because it creates a cycle in which more skilled jobs are generated, wealth is created and that will lead to a better social situation for everyone, which, in the end, equates to money in the pot to pay for pensions, social benefits and even to prevent cuts being enforced.

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