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Industrial Research Centers: From the Fort Knox Model to the High-Tech Campus

F. Martin

One has torn down the fences and is called «high-tech campus,» the other organizes an innovation fair on its premises, all advocate collaboration and mobility... What is going on in the major industrial research centers?

It's a new way of doing corporate research. Henry Chesbrough, the American professor who devised the concept in the acclaimed book published in 2003: Open Innovation, considers it to be "the new imperative for creating and profiting from technology. "

"Before," says Yves Morel, innovation manager with Schlumberger, "you set up your research center in a lovely place surrounded by a wooded park and you isolated your researchers. It was the culture of secrecy and it must be said that it worked pretty well for a long time.» But today, as explains Jan Misker, Strategic Programs Manager University Relations for the Phillips High Tech campus in Eindhoven, we have to accept that "we can no longer know everything and do everything ourselves. The time-to-market and product life cycle are shorter and shorter. At the same time, product diversity and complexity are increasing. If designing a product requires knowledge that we don't have, we cannot spend years building this knowledge ourselves." Jerome Dano, human resources manager at the Nestle Research Center in Lausanne, has noticed the same thing: «Nowadays, all innovation is multidisciplinary, but we can't recruit all the best researchers in all areas."

If we can no longer command all the knowledge we need, then at least we can reduce the time required to know whether or not it exists and where to find it. Access to knowledge is the whole point of Open Innovation. And the key has a name: networking. According to Yves Morel, it's simple: "In the future, what will make the difference is not the number of researchers but the effectiveness of our scientific network in managing and integrating multidisciplinary knowledge."

An unprecedented opening trend
As a result, research centers are coming of the woods: Schlumberger has moved geographically closer to university campuses in China, Moscow, as well as MIT, and for the first time has organized an innovation fair for all the group’s technical centers and invited outside companies; the Philips Research Center has actually opened its gates to become a high-tech campus itself and hosts outside research teams, startups, and suppliers... «We want to create a sort of ecosystem around us where people can make use of our infrastructures and knowledge and we can use theirs," explains Jan Misker. Finally all of them are grooming their relations with universities. They invite scientists to conferences and seminars, bring in eminent professors for sabbaticals, encourage their own researchers to publish, attend congresses and teach part-time at university, they appoint «ambassadors» to schools, sign research contracts with academic research centers or private companies, rent or loan them equipment, they hire young researchers on two-year post-doc contracts, as does the Nestlé Research Center, etc. Any scientist that comes through drains knowledge and then leaves and becomes a member of the network. One of those who can rapidly find the right person to talk to in his or her discipline the day it might be needed.

Such an evolution/revolution is not without impact on researcher careers and recruitment because their role is not only to produce knowledge but also to build and maintain a network, attract other scientists to them, forge their reputation, and their legitimacy... "The concept of open innovation enables us to have a powerful scientific network that is also our main recruitment pool," Jerome Dano explains. But beware, selection criteria have changed as well. At Nestlé, it’s soft skills such as curiosity, courage, the capacity to make connections between various areas, orientation results, creativity, proactive co-operation, etc. that are added to more scientific criteria. At Phillips, in an area where knowledge loses its value to the pace of product generation turnover and must therefore be constantly renewed, there is pressure on researchers to able to switch subjects, thereby making room for new talents, and to do so, what better way than to rely on one's scientific network?

An opportunity for PhDs?
In any event despite Schlumberger’s obvious preference for trained engineers, Yves Morel is optimistic for those who after three years of doctoral studies know how to build knowledge and a scientific network: «I think there are going to be new opportunities for PhDs not only in the private sector but also in the research centers we work with. "