Get science and industry to work together from the outset to ensure that everyone benefits from major scientific research.” This is the message that Marco Beijersbergen, Professor of Physical Instrumentation, is delivering to visitors at the annual Precision Fair. “Don’t see commercial parties as customers, but as co-developers.”

Companies as scientists

Beijersbergen is a professor at Leiden University and the founder of cosine, a manufacturer of specialized measurement systems for IBM and the European Space Agency (ESA), among others. During his lecture at the Precision Fair (which is an annual trade fair devoted to precision technology) he explained where things often go wrong. “Many research projects in my field have plenty of potential. Yet companies frequently do not see a business model in them. That’s why they’re not prepared to invest money in research and development.”

“So if research is dependent on commercial money, it often doesn’t get off the ground,” he adds. “But if you turn it the other way round, you’ll see that companies also have a lot of expertise in house and do carry out scientific research. They should actually get paid for that, instead of paying for it themselves.”

Partner in research

As an example, Beijersbergen cites the cooperation that took place during the development of equipment for ATHENA. This is an ESA X-ray telescope. “A few years ago, we realized that if we want to play a major role in that development, we’d have to come up with vast sums of money. Or else work more closely together with other organizations.” Cosine subsequently partnered with SRON, the Dutch space research institute. Cosine was able to apply for public research funds via SRON. “This was the very first time that I saw this happen and I think it is an important step. Some companies in the high-tech sector are just as capable of developing new technology and conducting scientific research as the public research institutes are.”

Across the fence

According to the professor, this also requires scientists to think in a different way. “In many cases, they only approach companies when they need money for their research. I’m really in favor of letting go of this idea that researchers should develop technologies and then cast these over to commercial parties on the other side of the fence. That’s often way too late and it rarely goes well. It only works if you start working together from the outset. Give companies the opportunity to actually participate in your scientific project and be willing to pay them for their input.”