Green agenda necessitates collaborations

SMEs are crucial when it comes to green development. However, it will require a larger capacity in terms of knowledge, access to university-expertise, facilities, and funds.

By Jacob Becker-Christensen, Director of the industry portal, LINX, tasked with delivering scientific use of neutrons and X-rays to companies.

A meeting

The stone age did not end because we ran out of stones, we found better materials. And materials are indeed at the center of green innovation – Li-batteries, solar cells, windmills, catalysts, biofuels, etc. Researchers in the country’s universities are excellent at understanding materials, down to the atomic level. Which is one of the keys to solve both the energy- and the climate crisis, and bring us into a new era.

However, the challenge with “clean-tech” is that it is often “high-tech”. This is a challenge for small companies. They develop good ideas, but have a hard time accessing scientists and facilities needed to properly work with material challenges and products. There is a large challenge in building capacity and competences at SMEs in order to mature them in the direction of green innovation. This is not merely about “installing” knowledge and making expertise accessible. It is even more important to de-risk the entire enterprise for these small companies, who often are so burdened with keeping their ship afloat that it is too difficult for them to take a gamble. The difficult or the unknown easily leads to bankruptcy.

The obvious road ahead is public-private coalitions; beside decreasing risk, coalitions are good at long-term innovation. Meanwhile, expertise is not enough. High efficiency is achieved only through easy means of contact and especially a flexible co-financing in a set, well-established framework.

An example of such a construct is the industry-portal LINX (“Linking Industry to Neutrons and X-rays”). LINX is tasked with mediating university expertise on neutron- and X-ray radiation to industry as an “additional workbench”. The two types of radiation are in practice a scientists’ swiss-army knife for up-close studies of materials at all levels – whether it is idea development, deeper understanding, or “trouble-shooting”. It is especially interesting for Denmark which has invested heavily in new, international research facilities in Lund – just 40 km from Copenhagen. They will be among the world’s leading sources of both neutron- and X-ray technologies. LINX’ goal is,  to create a national knowledge base, growth, and greater Danish competitiveness on e.g. green technologies, in order to strengthen Danish economy. The tool is to create and support project coalitions between companies and universities.

In LINX’ experience projects between scientists and SMEs need not be expensive. Even smaller budgets go a long way, innovation is often facilitated by the ability to pin-point focus on a subject. However, this is only true if the project framework is set and easy to work with – not only finacially, but all way down to template-level when something new is to be started. Many nascent ideas at SMEs are smothered at birth due to the efforts associated with establishing an external coalition from zero: small companies are often too challenged by day to day business to freely launch themselves into these projects. Projects must be flexible to commence when the need and the idea emerge – keeping in mind they, of course, must be innovative, create value, and be accomplishable. To this end, LINX has worked out a collaboration agreement, which once signed can be used for new entrants in the same format. It also has strong support by some of LINX’ large companies.

A tried and tested formula of this type is crucial for the ability to reach new solutions that are easily implementable at companies and not only at the scientific level. For instance, we have seen innovation created by the MADE project (Manufacturing Academy of Denmark) that builds brides between Danish companies and universities to solve challenges of advanced production. MADE and LINX are both funded by Innovation Fund Denmark and have in a fine manner supported coalitions between scientists from different universities and a wide circle of companies. The “micro-innovation” which unfolds by many small increments in LINX as well as MADE is generally an excellent supplement to the large and ambitious public-private research coalitions that also drive green development.

It is worth remembering that even though a company does not itself develop green technology it must still have the expertise available to enable green technology in solutions. LINX’ model is unusual but has merits that can meaningfully be considered in future research policies. Every stone must be turned in order to face the increasingly aggressive competition that characterizes global green development.

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