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The value of industrial research at the ESRF


The traditional gap between the communities of academia and the commercial world is narrowing and becoming less of a barrier as the two worlds increasingly seek to work together. Industry is rapidly realising the potential of research institutes and universities as vectors to help the development of technologies for applications in innovative commercial products.

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In the last few years “open innovation”, where resources, ideas and know-how from both industry and academic research are combined to accelerate the innovation cycle, has become a path trodden increasingly by industry and academia to their mutual benefit.

The ESRF is no exception to this trend. Historically, the ESRF has been viewed by industry as difficult to access and not set up for its needs. However, we already run a small but significant programme of proprietary beam-time use by industry, particularly for protein crystallography in drug discovery by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. The ESRF also welcomes experiments from industry through its collaborations and partnerships with academia where proposals for peer-review beam time can be awarded as long as the results are published. Many peer-reviewed experiments carried out at the ESRF are associated with industry, either through a direct collaboration or by student or post-doctorate funding, but these links are often unknown to us and the potential for valuable and visible feedback to our funding bodies is lost. One of our key objectives is for the ESRF to become more open and transparent for these academic–industrial experiments. In practical terms this means proactively supporting industrially associated work at the ESRF by including scientists and technologists from industry on the beam-time allocation panels that review proposals and by treating industrial applicants in the same way as academics. Of course, for this to work it also means that our users need to check the tick box on the beam-time application forms to let us know that industry is involved.

The ESRF is an exceptional tool financed by public funds, available to as broad a community as possible and our users’ experiments are far from all being about immediately applicable research. Fundamental research will remain as a pillar of the ESRF’s user experiments and indeed strengthened by industry becoming actively involved in experiments that open new horizons and lay the basis of future, innovative developments that industry can benefit from over a longer timescale.

In the longer term, opening the ESRF to industry and responding to its needs more visibly will better demonstrate the value of an international synchrotron centre of excellence that is able to help drive new developments directly having an impact upon the European economy. As industry starts to better appreciate the power of the ESRF’s X-ray beamlines – both our current and new facilities to be built as part of the Upgrade Programme – the proprietary programme with industry will be strengthened with opportunities for full service offers and R&D projects to solve the problems that industry brings to our expert scientists and facilities. The income that is generated through our proprietary work is used to support further staff and improve our beamlines to the benefit of all of our user communities.

In this issue of the ESRFnews, the “Focus on” section takes a detailed look at the innovative research that is being carried out at the ESRF, highlighting some of the successful stories of work with strong industry links, such as work with and from internationally recognised companies. These examples are just the tip of what we hope to see as a growing section of valuable research done at the ESRF.

S Pérez and H Reichert, directors of research



The team at the Industrial and Commercial Unit. From left to right: Debbie Davison, Ed Mitchell, Elodie Boller, Stephanie Malbet-Monaco, Elspeth Gordon, Katherine Fletcher and Gianluca Cioci.

“There are still companies out there who don’t know what the ESRF could do for them. There is a lot of potential – we just need industry to get to know us,” explains Ed Mitchell, business developer at the Industrial and Commercial Unit of the ESRF. The unit, founded in 2002, has attracted a steady number of industrial users to the ESRF until today. “We need to do more, though,” says Mitchell. Today, this group is undergoing a makeover and it is adding more features to its services. On top of the data of experiments performed by companies, the service will now include full data analysis – “a complete service”. This will also include teaming up with specialists in the field from academia who can help to better answer the requests of the companies. “We need to come out of the cocoon where we have been until now and focus more on industrial users, without forgetting the academic sector,” says Mitchell. Academic users won’t be put on the side. On the contrary, they will benefit from the industrial work as well. This is the case, for example, of a catalysis reaction chamber built for and paid by Toyota. Today academic users can freely use it.

The ESRF will also team up with local partners to provide an optimal suite of facilities for industrial researchers. A project that is currently under preparation is the so-called “Technology Building”, set up by the Centre d’Energie Atomique, the ESRF and the Institut Laue-Langevin. This building would house tools for sample preparation for the ESRF and the ILL facilities, and complementary characterisation targeted for industrial users. If approved, it would have French funding and would be operational around 2013.

M Capellas



This article appeared in ESRFnews, December 2010. 

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Top image: Scientists applying for beam time at the ESRF should tick the box “a proposal relating to research in collaboration with an industrial group”, which is on the first screen of the application system.