Best practices for sustainable plastic university-industry collaborations

Sustainability and plastic pollution are becoming increasingly pressing topics both in media, and research. Consumers expect transparency from companies about the environmental impact of their activities, increasing the emphasis on corporate responsibility to address these issues. As companies begin to realise that marketing and good intentions are no longer enough to keep them relevant, they are turning to academic researchers for solutions in the form of sustainable plastic collaborations.

This summary of our virtual event with university technology transfer professionals gives insight into how they have managed relationships and sustainable plastic collaborations with academics and companies to address the plastic pollution crisis.  

You can now access the recording of this event through our dedicated webinars page here. Feel free to share it with any colleagues who might find it useful.

Meet the panellists…

Helder Lopes

Helder is focused on accelerating the transfer of technologies and scientific breakthroughs to the market and society and holds 10 years of experience across multiple sectors and work environments, including academia, industry and government. 

Samuela Franceschini

Samuela acts as a facilitator to bring together researchers and companies to develop opportunities for collaboration and funding opportunities. 

Jack Tasker

In his role, Jack is responsible for creating collaborative links between organisations and the University of Birmingham’s academics. He leads on industry engagement for the Birmingham Plastics Network.

 

Identifying the most promising projects internally

Whether TTOs have approached industry R&D teams with an invention, or companies have contacted the university with a project or challenge in mind, having strong internal relationships makes it easier for the most relevant academics and projects to be brought to the table. They do this by ensuring academics are aware of TTOs, their role, and the opportunities available for help and support to commercialise research. 

To do this, Helder and his team travel between the different NOVA campuses to speak to the different schools as part of a ‘roadshow’ to promote skills development and drive IP and knowledge exchange. They also display research projects on their website using an innovation portal. The main audience of this portal is industry R&D teams, however, Helder has found that it has generated interest in commercialisation amongst academics as they can see others participating and receiving interest from companies. IN-PART also offers a technologies portal to subscribed universities, providing them with a unique URL that can be hosted on their site to promote technologies. On average, the institutes making use of the IN-PART portal approximately triple their technology views as well as receiving additional industry connections. 

Jack is fortunate to have access to the Birmingham Plastics Network, an interdisciplinary team of academics working to holistically address the global plastics problem. He is able to use this existing network to find projects and create sustainable plastic collaborations when approached by industry R&D teams. 

NOVA have a similar initiative, NOVA 4 The Globe, an interdisciplinary platform that promotes dialogue within NOVA’s community across different areas of knowledge towards sustainability. This platform promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on projects and provides a network for Helder and his colleagues to relevant researchers in their university are working on. 

 

Communicating with industry 

Building relationships with companies was the main focus of our panellists when communicating with industry. While all of our panelists agreed with was easier to set-up meetings online, they found they built stronger relationships with their industry contacts when they were able to meet in person. 

The University of Birmingham has a dedicated Marketing and Communication team for technology transfer and knowledge exchange who work alongside the TTO and academics promoting content and engaging with the latest innovations and papers from their academics. This team also travel to UK-based industry focussed events and conferences to find new companies, and increase interest among SME’s who may not know how to access university research. 

Our panellists also made use of funding schemes to support university-industry relationships. Using funding schemes reduces the number of barriers in place for smaller companies who are new to technology transfer to collaborate with universities. Jack mentioned UK and EU Research Council funding that universities could apply for and allocate to new projects with SME’s with small budgets to cover some of the costs of a project. This allows a small project to be undertaken with the option of continued collaboration afterwards. 

Samuela referenced a similar funding scheme that sponsors a position that partially works for the university, usually a postdoc, and also works on a similar project related to their research area within a company. This gives their TTO a contact within a company to expand their industry network to approach teams with research projects in the future. 

During the pandemic, NOVA joined the Portuguese Plastic Pact as the scientific coordinator. The pact has over 100 members including universities and companies working collaboratively on strategies and projects that will address the targets set for the Pact. They are also part of the FITEC – Interface Programme which aims to speed up technology transfer and produce products with value.

When asked how to avoid approaching potential industry partners with similar research to other universities, our panellists weren’t too concerned. They all stated that competition is not always a bad thing and by making use of networks and making people aware of what your university is working on it can provide an opportunity to work collaboratively to add value to research and add to shared knowledge. These situations could lead to a larger and faster impact within the research community. 

 

Examples of sustainable plastic collaborations

Ca’ Foscari PInK patented a method to extract a molecule used to create plastic for solar panels from the residues left in winemaking. They sold the patent to a company at cost to further develop the method and bring it to market while involving the inventors from Ca’ Foscari. By doing this they were able to gain a large development project to create a prototype and fund a spin-off company to contribute to the commercialisation of the invention. By sharing the design and the knowledge of the inventors they now have a strong relationship with this company which is promising for future sustainable plastic collaborations, as well as other projects.

Meanwhile at NOVA, there is a very active group in the school of science and technology that have developed a novel method to produce biopolymers, mainly PHA. The method uses mixed microbial culture from renewable feedstocks, mainly organic waste or food wastes. This technology received attention from two large companies. The first signed an agreement that had defined royalties from the IP, including royalty percentages based on the proportion of biopolymer substituted in place of less sustainable polymers currently being used.  A second company who had previously worked with NOVA through EU-funded projects expressed interest in this innovation. In a similar approach to Ca Foscari, NOVA licensed the know-how of the groups as the company was interested in the expertise of the academics and wanted them to consult on the commercialisation process.  

The University of Birmingham Enterprise are in the 1st year of a 5 year sustainable plastic collaboration with the University of Manchester and a global consumer goods company to look at deploying sustainable polymers technology into packaging. They worked up to this long-term project by using smaller projects over 3-4 years to build a relationship with the company. It also gave researchers at the university and the company time to understand routes and processes involved in the project and define the relationship to ensure the right projects are being pursued. The University of Birmingham has also decided to sponsor a PhD student to conduct complementary environmental research to further support and invest in the collaboration. 

 


Written by Frances Wilkinson. Edited by Jake Mitchell.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2021: ‘Best practices for sustainable plastic university-industry collaborations’


 

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