Article | From lab to market. How universities can accelerate the environmental transition

July 27, 2023
Article | From lab to market. How universities can accelerate the environmental transition

Universities are frequently thought of as academic establishments dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge. They play a crucial role in supplying new information, research-based solutions, and innovations to address a variety of technological problems. It is critical for universities to strike a balance in allocating resources between fundamental research that results in academic publications and applied research that results in concrete solutions to specific problems.

The environmental issues should be addressed using a similar strategy. In fact, given the current course of climate change, immediate and concrete measures must be taken, as well as long-term research to develop clean technologies that will help prevent our environment from being permanently uninhabitable.

Universities and other research centres can play an important role in this by leveraging their distinct set of capabilities. Let's take a closer look at them and see how they can help to accelerate the pace of Cleantech innovation.

1. Patents/IP

Over the years, Universities have filed a large variety of patents and develop intellectual property (IP).  Although there may be a variety of underlying motives, only a small number of them are directly related to a sustainable development goal. However, clean technology development cannot be mandated. It is the match between a specific technology and a market, which results in a value proposition with the primary mission of responding to an environmental problem. Having said that, a technology (or part of a technology) used in a completely different context could meet this objective with certain adaptations or evolutions. Consider replacing current supply with bio-sourced supply, exploring recycling opportunities, combining IP to drastically reduce GHG emission rate, and so on.

For example, MIT's first-ever Climate Grand Challenges initiative was created to mobilise the entire research community in order to identify relevant solutions. As a result, it has resulted in five multi-year flagship projects that will receive additional funding to rapidly develop, implement, and scale the solutions.

Taking a fresh look at university patents and intellectual property from a clear environmental perspective may in fact result in new sustainable applications. Such analysis requires a solid understanding of the technology, sufficient market insight to identify relevant opportunities, and the capacity to enlist industrial partners to close the final stages of maturation. Of course, universities don't have to handle everything alone...

2. Specialist expertise

Within universities, we typically have a large number of schools/faculties with strong expertise, each seeking to advance research and deploy new applications. However, this research tends to be conducted from a narrower perspective given the subject matter taught in the faculty.

Whether it's about law with "The role of the European Climate Law in governing the EU's climate and energy transition" or new materials with "How materials science can make the planet cleaner," it all makes sense because the purpose is to advance the state-of-the-art. Combining expertise becomes essential when it comes to real applications and advancing technological maturity along the well-known Technology Readiness Level scale. If the legal or business aspects are not considered from the beginning, it becomes difficult to create a viable prototype.

McGill University at Montreal has well understood this success factor. This is why they created the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI), a cross-disciplinary network of sustainability researchers that facilitates multi-dimensional communication and analysis, thereby accelerating effective problem-solving. The Sustainability, Science & Society (SSS) curriculum was developed using the same rationale. It combines three crucial thematic pillars: (1) Science and Technology, (2) Economics, Policy and Governance, and (3) Ethics, Equity and Justice.

3. State-of-the art facilities

Universities have the ability to test and qualify promising technologies thanks to their many well-equipped labs. Nowadays, academic research and corporates with university partnerships are the primary users of such infrastructure. In the face of the climate emergency, a large number of start-ups present innovative solutions that need to be tested or refined. Typically, when a company is a spin-off from a university, it has privileged access to university facilities. However, before or even after the commercialization, other start-ups could certainly profit from the campus' infrastructure. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to respond to biosphere challenges faster.

Moreover, such collaboration will assist academia in monetizing their equipment while benefiting from new market insights that will contribute to successful pivots of emerging technologies that are still in the labs.

Some universities have signed new agreements with start-ups in order to reap these benefits. This is the case for QMU University in London, which is collaborating with Nature Metrics to improve biodiversity monitoring and, as a result, reduce harmful human pressure on our biosphere.

4. Structural framework

The sustainability theme has been studied for many years, but there are still no clear frameworks in place to effectively exchange information across countries. Corporations still lack guidelines for defining and implementing a clear trajectory, despite more mature reporting frameworks and other materiality matrices. Universities are in a good position to think critically about the appropriate measures, in addition to the typical consulting firms establishing their own methodology.

As an example, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) have created open access frameworks. The Rewiring the Economy framework demonstrates how the economy can be ‘rewired' through intensive collaboration between business, government, and financial institutions. Another model that describes the type of leadership required to deliver value to business, society, and the environment is the Cambridge Impact Leadership Model. Every time, the objective is the same: to assist leaders in making the necessary changes toward a more sustainable economy.

Because of their unique set of capabilities, universities are more important than ever in establishing a clear path to market for clean technologies. Four tangible levers are to exploit existing patents, encourage multidisciplinary research, provide access to infrastructure, and develop new frameworks. There is no reason not to take advantage of these obvious benefits; new positive solutions are on the way.

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