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Academics who move to the business sector and the other way round: a far-reaching decision that requires the necessary adjustments. But the people who have chosen to do this can recommend it to everyone.
Lucien Joppen

Sanjay Rastogi switched from the university to the private sector in 2008. ‘A few years previously I had moved to Loughborough University where I continued the work I had been doing at Eindhoven University of Technology. This concerned the “unravelled” synthesis of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMPE), a study that was supported by the Dutch Polymer Institute. At the time I was mainly interested in the fundamental aspects of this process. There were also interesting functionalities of the material that the business sector could use. I was already collaborating with the company Teijin Aramid on that pathway, examining how UHMPE could be processed into a tape with a high strength modulus. It was the strongest “man-made” tape with applications in lightweight products such as bulletproof vests or helmets. The advantage with respect to Dyneema was that it could be produced without solvents, making it more environmentally friendly (and cheaper). The tapes are now produced in a “solid-state processing plant” in Emmen.’

Pioneering research

Stefaan de Wildeman made a similar step, except that he swapped the business sector for the research laboratory. He left DSM behind him in 2013 after an eleven-year career with the multinational company. ‘I made  this switch so I could lay a fundamental basis for the development of biobased building blocks. It is pioneering research in which our team is concentrating in the first instance on the conversion of sugar derivatives into new polymers. For this kind of research you have to distance yourself from day-to- day affairs such as the price of oil and short-term or shorter-term strategies. It’s about that point on the horizon, how you get there and preserving your own belief in that horizon. That applies not only to the research, but also to the teaching and supervising of young academic talent. The generation who will be in charge in the coming decades.’

Rules of the business sector

Rastogi has never regretted his move. His move to Teijin gave him an accelerated introduction to the rules of the business sector, partly through an MBA. ‘Recognising and articulating a specific “market pull” is the added value that businesses can bring. Timing and decisionmaking are critical success factors. If you make mistakes here, it doesn’t matter how good your product is: it really won’t succeed. It is important to have salespeople who are well versed in the technology. That is why I regularly have contact with these colleagues.’

Both Rastogi and De Wildeman can recommend jumping the fence, although the latter advises that this decision not be taken too lightly. ‘It’s not nothing: you would leave your comfort zone for an uncertain future in fundamental research. Once again, it can produce trailblazing innovations, but there is absolutely no guarantee of that.’

Personal growth

Rastogi likewise would not hesitate to encourage colleagues who are considering a change. ‘Especially if they want to transform their concepts into marketable products. This step is anything but easy, but if it is successful it will bring the satisfaction of climbing that mountain together with a multidisciplinary team and planting the flag on top. It also requires personal skills of the (fundamental) researcher, skills that are possibly less fostered in academic circles. Cooperating in teams requires you to listen to each other’s arguments and weigh them up carefully. That is not always that easy for specialists who are used to operating more as soloists. You need flexibility, respect and joviality to get teams to function. In brief, a switch also demands a certain degree of personal development and growth.’

Vision and leadership

Europe is often labelled as excelling in fundamental research but finding it more difficult to get to the market. Perhaps a more dynamic work climate, in which people switch from scientific study (and research) to the business sector (and vice versa) more regularly, can ensure that ‘we’ in Europe also become better in realising innovation.

De Wildeman: ‘What we lack here in Europe is a more explicit “can do” mentality and entrepreneurial spirit. More importantly, vision and leadership are missing in a sector that is currently far from stable, even chaotic. In short, these are fundamental matters you cannot solve with increased “traffic” between the business sector and fundamental research. Transforming innovation into marketable products and/or services is important, but it is definitely not the only aspect. What is involved is a sustainable world which we want to leave behind for our children. This carries a moral obligation. I believe that it is senseless to compete purely on price. That only results in the destruction of value. We have to restore the connection with the products we use. Issues such as working conditions and environmental taxes then also enter the picture.’

Rastogi also acknowledges the European deficit in this area. ‘It is about a cultural change whereby we should work more with close-knit teams whose team leaders have strong communication skills. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if experts jumped the fence more regularly.’