| 5 minute read

EPFL’s approach to forging valuable industry partnerships

Elena Galán-Muros
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During the 2023 Conference, we had a fascinating discussion with Robert Giezendanner-Thoben, Director of Industry Affairs at EPFL, where we explored innovation, start-ups, and industry collaboration. Learn how EPFL nurtures entrepreneurial mindsets, and discover the dynamic interplay between industry and education.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Madeline Arkins:
Can you tell us more about your work at EPFL and what your role as Director of Industry Affairs entails?

Robert Giezendanner-Thoben:
I’m the Vice President for Innovation. It’s a team of nearly 40 people and there are two main topics we are tackling. One is related to start-ups: supporting the transfer of technology out of the labs, creating start-up and supporting the development of entrepreneurial mindset, which is a big topic. The second one is about industry collaboration: from small-middle enterprises to large corporate, national, and international. My role is focused on this international industry collaboration, and we try to support the interaction between companies and EPFL with the aim of having a positive impact on society.

Madeline Arkins:
Can you speak a little bit about how you approach partnerships in your role, what you look out for and what you value in a partner?

Robert Giezendanner-Thoben:
First, we look where the company is coming from, on which market the company is active and what is the company producing. Although we are not just looking for product-based companies, we also work with banks and insurance companies, for example.

We also look at partnerships from a national perspective: Is it a company in Switzerland, maybe close to EPFL? Or maybe in the Swiss-German parts in Europe? And then of course, around the world. The criteria are very diverse, but what is more important is really the potential collaboration and if it fits with the strategy of EPFL, if EPFL vision fits with the strategy of the company and if we can create a long-term collaboration together.

Madeline Arkins:
How do you cultivate an environment where researchers, academics feel driven to seek out those partnerships and to engage. Is that something that is intrinsically in EPFL’s nature?

Robert Giezendanner-Thoben:
There is one element which is positively acting that direction, and it is that we have had an innovation park for more than 30 years. Of course, our researchers, the professors, faculties, have some experience in collaborating with industry because they have been close to them for many years. It is part of EPFL’s DNA, but of course this is not enough.

And we are also supporting the faculties and labs. We have just created the ambassador role, which is the key person of contact in a faculty that supports the two topics – pushing technology out with the creation of start-ups, and industry collaboration – by being present on the research side and bringing value to them.

We know that interacting with companies sometimes takes time, so we really try to make it as efficient as possible for them to see value in industry collaboration”.

Madeline Arkins:
Are there any future trends or future ambitions that you are working around in your role that you are particularly excited about?

Robert Giezendanner-Thoben:
One element that is important to me is the future of collaboration and trying to move past just the bilateral collaboration between a company and one of our professors.

Going more in depth and trying to talk about challenges of a company and getting in discussion with the company about their vision and how can EPFL be one of the key innovation partners of the company. How can we really support as a EPFL at large with our students with the different search topics?

We have many different topics on board, from life sciences, engineering, architecture, civil engineering, management of technology, basic science, physics, chemistry… How can this knowledge support the challenges they are facing?

And on another level, if you want to solve a big problem nowadays, there is not one start-up or one lab that can solve it. So, how can we combine all these elements together to move forward faster? These are the questions that we are trying to answer by finding new collaboration models.

Interested in more insights like this?

If you would like to build your one-time university-business relationships into long-term, strategic ones, but don’t know where to start, head now to our video How to turn transactional university-business relationships into strategic partnerships?

You can also learn all about Serendipity Day, he innovative format that brings industry and research together to develop new ideas and applications, in our episode with Jochen Barth (Group Leader of Networks and Transfer at Fraunhofer IWU), Serendipity Day: How innovative collaborations spark new ideas.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform!

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