12 Apr 2007
Commercializing university research can be problematic. François Salin, chief technology officer of EOLITE and former director of Bordeaux’s PALA technology-transfer facility, pinpoints some of the hurdles.
François Salin understands the challenges of commercializing university research first-hand. He has worked as a researcher in France and in the US, was founder and director of the Plate-forme d’Application des Lasers en Aquitaine (PALA) and is now chief technology officer of EOLITE, a developer of Q-switched fibre lasers with green and ultraviolet (UV) output.
What is the main stumbling block for an idea on its journey from the university lab to the marketplace?
The main difficulty is the wide gap that you have between the goal of the university and that of the people in industry. The researcher is interested in the first demonstration of something so that they can publish the result. Industry is interested in the 100 units that follow and is focused on the bottom line. Engineers need to be sure that the technology is reliable.
In one way this is a good thing, because it means that both communities can co-exist, but it makes commercialization a bit more complicated. It is too difficult to jump directly from the university into the commercial sector. I believe that you need an intermediate step. The idea that you can develop the concept at the university, give the box to people in industry who repaint it and put their label on it, almost never works. You need to have a very strong link between all of the partners and to go back and forth from the idea to the final product.
One way is to take the researcher and transform them into a business leader, but this is a difficult task and requires the right candidate. To be a researcher you need to have a very special state of mind. It is a challenging job and I loved it for many years, but the skill-set is totally different. There might only be a few successful researchers who can also be successful in business. It is not the fault of the system, it is just two different ways of working.
The key to transferring ideas efficiently is to put the researcher and the engineer together so that they can communicate effectively. The two communities are split immediately after their studies and a few years later they no longer know each other. You need a neutral place like a technology-transfer centre that can act as a translator for both sides, help to avoid any conflict and offer a real opportunity for both sides to work together at the same location. You can bring together the people who are going to be in charge of the final product with the people who came up with the idea.
We have done this in Bordeaux, but we are not the only ones. The Laser Zentrum in Hanover, Germany, is a perfect example and I think right now that this is the easiest way to bring an idea into the market.
Where did EOLITE’s fibre-laser technology come from?
The heart of our technology stems from research on ultrashort pulse amplification conducted at the University of Bordeaux. This area was not a market in itself, but we were able to take the technology from a femtosecond amplifier and transform it into a nano-second fibre laser for materials processing. The source uses third harmonic generation to deliver output in the UV or can be used for via drilling, wafer dicing and solar-cell patterning. The unit’s short 10 ns pulse gives you high peak powers of 100 kW and suits deep engraving, which is where we want to go. We were able to put somebody in the university lab who could understand the technology and try to sell the idea to the market.
How does the commercialization of university research in France compare with the US?
The main difference between commercialization in the US and in France is that in the US there is no wall between the university and private companies. This means that if you have an idea at the university then there is a real chance that you can take it up to the market. If you are successful, there is the option to sell your company and return to the university – you don’t have to choose your camp.
What role can local government play in the technology-transfer process?
The starting point is innovation. Here in Aquitaine, the region understands that if they want to offer people a better life then they need to make sure that there will be jobs. The local government is encouraging researchers to think about what they can do for the rest of the community and the incentive is money.
It is actually much easier for the people from one university to work with the industry around them. Sometimes you need a large infrastructure that has to be funded nationally, but most of the time technology transfer comes down to putting a small amount of money in the right place at the right time. It is really a question of the local government being successful in doing this.
See www.eolite.com for more information on the company and its technology.
• This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.