New era of university-industry collaboration launched
Collaboration between academia and business has been happening since the 1990s, when programmes mostly focused on boosting manufacturing development – but it declined during two decades of recession.
The stage has now been set for bigger and more diverse university-industry projects, said Yuko Harayama, head of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation or CSTI, under the government’s cabinet office.
In the past official support for science and technology was for basic research. Now it will move towards application and commercialisation, Harayama said. The CSTI’s new fifth basic plan for 2016-20 is currently being prepared and will reform research funding in this direction.
“The new mandate [starting April 2016] to promote science and technology collaboration is based on innovation and long-term vision. The policy targets interdisciplinary research and reforms to support this process,” she said.
Harayama contends that stark reality is leading to competition for funding, a change that has chipped away at the old ivory tower mentality in Japanese university research.
The push for industrial funding is increasingly viewed as a viable option in universities to meet the challenge of declining public financing and rising global competition.
It will also take account of rapid changes in business itself, including connectivity and the need for co-production across borders, according to officials.
“Academic research must be driven by economic and social needs, and companies will demand new ideas and models that can serve their interests,” Harayama said.
The CSTI works with the cabinet office to define budding research collaboration based on the need to meet new social challenges, pushing basic university research towards commercial application.
The council has outlined a Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program to identify relevant issues.
Some of the major economic and social challenges include rapid urbanisation, an aging population, less polluting energy for ‘smart city' development and post-disaster resilience, according to government documents. One target is to introduce heavy rain and tornado prediction technology at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020.
The energy programme has innovative combustion technology research as an objective to improve the fuel efficiency of automobile engines. Another area is automated driving, with the objective of developing new transportation systems including technologies to avoid accidents and alleviate congestion.
A futuristic project has been launched by the Tokyo Institute of Technology – Japan’s equivalent of MIT in the United States. Conducted at the International Research Center of Advanced Energy Systems for Sustainability with initial funding of JPY100 million (US$814,000), the project is a research platform for the development of a low-carbon society.
It aims to make Japan a global leader in the development of ‘smart cities’ that represent low-carbon emission environments through energy efficiency in the consumption and transport sectors. Industrial partners are the state-backed giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone or NTT Group, the Mitsubishi Corporation and Tokyo Gas.
“Rapidly expanding cities have to move away from being polluters through reliance on renewable sources. The research project is based on this demand. Another important aspect is producing graduates who can take the lead,” explained the laboratory head, Professor Takao Kashiwagi.
The project involves scientists and engineers from academia and the private sector. Also included as observers are government and local officials interested in investing in ‘smart cities’ for future growth.
A key aim is to develop a ‘smart energy mix’ by 2030 that will source diverse energies towards establishing a less centrally controlled, low-carbon and reliable power industry.
The project, which stems from the devastating Fukushima nuclear plant accident in 2011, includes public seminars to enhance public understanding of the project, representing a new chapter in closed university research.
“The project concept is future oriented. Collaboration is beneficial to academic research because we can tap new funding and industrial networks. Companies see the merit of cutting research costs by having access to top scientists and academic laboratories,” said Kashiwagi.
The Japanese government is acutely aware that it needs to catch up with the more dynamic collaborations between American universities and industry – which have also benefited from Japanese business funds.
Ryoichi Sakurai, spokesperson for the telecommunications company NTT Corporation, explained that working together with academia was important for his company for diverse reasons and must be expanded.
A key objective of NTT in funding a collaborative project started in 2014 to develop cyber security technology with Waseda University, is the production of graduates skilled in this field.
“NTT is continuously searching for experts who can contribute to cyber security promotion in our company. By supporting Waseda University we hope to achieve this aim,” he said.
Another example is a collaboration between Panasonic and Keio University to develop rehabilitation devices for stroke survivors, with clinical studies now conducted at Keio University Hospital.
Start-ups in space technology is another area of partnership. For instance, the public Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Tohoku University are raising private sector funds for commercial resource exploration on the moon from 2023.
Many of the collaborations look good on paper but the real test will be the outcomes, and there are other issues that need to be tackled before they can be truly successful and benefit universities as well as industry.
Professor Moteki Kaneko, director of research at Tsukuba University, wants a deeper debate on the growing collaboration, including on a clearer strategy for sharing commercial profits from joint projects and on the importance of maintaining non-conditional public funds for universities.
“While the thrust is clear, there are concerns about protecting research from commercial interests as the main objective,” he said.
Indeed Showa University, known for its medical research, is now collaborating with Kyodo Senpaku, a Tokyo based whale meat processing company, on using balenine in whales for dementia prevention. National whale meat consumption is falling amid growing protests, and an international moratorium on commercial whaling permits Japan only research activity.