“Successful technology transfer requires a common mindset on both sides, and that always depends on people.” Aerospace engineer, Peter Middendorf, had already come to this conclusion prior to his time at the University of Stuttgart. Middendorf spent ten years in the industrial sector, initially at the aerospace company EADS, which is now the Airbus Group, and most recently as head of research programs with the helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter – effectively on the consumer side of university research.
In fact, in his experience, there are significant differences in the respective mindsets: “The focus of university research is long-term,” he explains: “Time frames are often based on the amount of time it takes to complete a doctorate, which in engineering is three to five years, whereas Issues arising in the industrial sector tend to become acute very rapidly and at ever-shorter intervals, and need to be addressed extremely swiftly.” These differing expectations present a challenge to both parties: “Industry partners need to understand that research is risky and that things don't always go as planned. On the other hand, the university partners must make every effort to deliver – even when, for example, someone has completed his or her doctorate and left the institute.”
“Successful technology transfer requires a common mindset on both sides, and that always depends on people.”Prof. Peter Middendorf
Fostering a spirit of Entrepreneurship
Middendorf brought an awareness of this conundrum with him when he took up a post as Professor of Aircraft Design at the University of Stuttgart in 2012 and became head of the Institute of Aircraft Design (IFB). It was a stroke of luck that the ARENA2036 research campus, whose declared objective is to unite the different stakeholders and speed up technology transfer, was planned at the same time. The original focus was primarily on the automobile of tomorrow, but this had to be made lighter, which meant that the expert in fiber composite technologies was in great demand: “Composite lightweight design originated in the aerospace sector, and the auto industry was soon beating a path to our door.”
There was no need to encourage technology transfer at the IFB itself. “Research at the IFB has always had a strong application focus and is characterized by numerous collaborations with industry partners”, says Middendorf, adding with a chuckle: “It was more a case of me having to fight my way through to the basic research side and, for example, establishing a track record with the German Research Foundation.” But the enthusiasm for knowledge sharing remained, as evidenced by an average of three to four invention disclosures and one spin-off per year. While Middendorf encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship, he also thinks of himself as a cautionary voice: “Notwithstanding my great enthusiasm,” he explains, “I also see it as my duty to critically question the business model to ensure that a given project has a chance of succeeding. And, of course, the PhD has to be completed or the paper written.”
This passion turned into an official mission in 2018 at the latest, since which time, Middendorf has been the Vice Rector for Knowledge and Technology Transfer at the University of Stuttgart. Even at that time, outsiders perceived the university as a strong transfer engine in an innovative region, yet the existing structures were heterogeneous, and certain things, such as entrepreneurship, were still in their infancy. Middendorf's predecessor Prof. Thomas Graf had already advocated increasing and centralizing technology transfer and raising its profile. The task now was to set up the necessary structures for this. “This first involves developing a strategy, but also communications, fundraising, and reviewing the organization, including in comparison with other universities,” Middendorf explains.
The resulting strategy is focused on start-up-based transfers and continuously promotes entrepreneurship at every level – from the “Let US start!” teaching program, which is designed to awaken the entrepreneurial spirit among students, and the “Let US elevate!” start-up program, to hands-on start-up support in the technology transfer initiative (TTI), through to partner programs such as “Startup!Autobahn”, which promotes practical implementation in collaboration with industry partners as part of the ARENA2036 initiative. The new Chair for Technological and Digitalization Entrepreneurship, which is currently held by Prof. Alexander Brem, was established as a platform for start-ups with the support of the Daimler Fund in the Donors' Association.
These efforts quickly proved successful: the university was able to launch the EXi+ project in collaboration with the Stuttgart Media University almost from a standing start, with the aim of networking and supplementing existing opportunities in the field of entrepreneurship within the region. And the Donor Association's “start-up radar,” a ranking system that compares universities' efforts to boost their startup cultures, also shows a steep upward curve: the University of Stuttgart improved its ranking by 14 places in 2020 compared to 2018 and is currently ranked 12th among the 42 major universities in Germany. “We are delighted that the focus on entrepreneurship and start-ups set out in our knowledge transfer strategy is bearing fruit so quickly,” says Middendorf.
At the research level, too, new lights are shining on the horizon in terms of knowledge sharing: the QSens future cluster, which is headed up by Professors Jens Anders and Jörg Wrachtrup, is developing quantum sensors for everyday applications in medicine, Industry 4.0, mobility, and sustainability. And researchers from the University of Stuttgart and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) are collaborating on breakthrough technologies in the fields of mobility and production at the Future Mobility Innovation Campus (ICM). As Middendorf emphasizes: “Both alliances are prime examples of how basic research and knowledge transfer can be tightly integrated.”
“The purpose of the transfer center is to support university staff and, at the same time, to facilitate communications with external partners.”Prof. Peter Middendorf
Next step: A central transfer center
Together with the so-called WTT round, he already has his eye on the next “construction site“: “We have to consider how we could better organize knowledge and technology transfers at the University of Stuttgart.” The concept of a central transfer center emerged from a thorough analysis of the potential structures and models. As of mid-2022, all instruments and contact persons will be brought together there under one roof, and previously underdeveloped elements such as a career service, technology scouting and start-up advice will be expanded along with the creation of a platform for strategic partnerships. The offices of major transfer projects such as the ICM or QSens could also be housed in the new center. “The purpose of the transfer center is to support university staff and, at the same time, to facilitate communications with external partners,” says Middendorf, pointing out the added value.
Furthermore, greater emphasis is to be placed on knowledge transfer and consequently on the topic of public engagement, particularly through collaborations with the University of Stuttgart's International Center for Cultural and Technological Studies and Interchange Forum for Reflecting on Intelligent Systems (IRIS), whose mission is to promote critical reflection on intelligent systems. Science communication should also become more important in this context, Middendorf is interested in more than just operational communications: “We also have an urgent need for research relating to science communication,” he explains. This is a hot topic, and not just since the new German government included science communication in its coalition agreement for the first time. As Middendorf stresses, you need to be quick off the mark if you want to get in on the action: “There’s no low-hanging fruit, but that just makes it all the more alluring.”