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Technology transfer

Knowing what to do with knowledge

Industrial relations is an important field for CNRS.
A look at how CNRS manages technology transfer, patents and innovative business start-ups.

innovaton  photo mec

© C. Lébedinski/CNRS Photothèque


Researchers should be free to research whatever they want!” declares Marc J. Ledoux, the newly appointed director of the recently created Industrial Policy Office (DPI)1, who describes himself as a CNRS man, through and through. It's the first time that a scientist is appointed to this role and Ledoux plans to overhaul the structures responsible for CNRS technology transfer. CNRS already holds 2600 major patents (more if extensions are counted) and is one of the top ten patent filers in France; every year, it raises about €50 million from the 200 to 300 active licenses it grants. Furthermore, CNRS research is the basis for the creation of about 30 companies each year; around 200 of these companies are currently in existence and flourishing.

The task of managing and administrating CNRS' patents is handled by FIST S.A., a private subsidiary–in which CNRS has a 66% stake–but which is independent of the CNRS structure.

 

Prestige and patents

The main motivations for taking out patents are financial, so what does CNRS–a non-profit organization–stand to gain from them? “Patents ensure that findings and results stay in the public domain,” says Ledoux. “Patented information cannot be kept secret, and our aim is for intellectual property to be used.” In his view, a history of successful patents boosts CNRS' reputation thereby promoting collaboration with industry. He cites two examples. European Commission-integrated projects now constitute a major contribution to research funding, and involve both academia and industry. The second example is the “competitiveness clusters.”2 In both cases, CNRS labs with a history of successful patent applications have greater chances of attracting industrial partners.

 

Basic vs applied research: An outdated separation?

Although the principal role of CNRS is to generate knowledge and understanding, its mission also encompasses contributing to economic development. Ledoux believes that CNRS researchers should be given free rein including freedom to see their work develop in the industrial domain-technology transfer. When asked about scientists'stereotypical perception of applied research, he becomes animated: “There is simply knowledge, understanding. 'Applied' and 'basic' are irrelevant labels. All research generates knowledge.” He points out that CNRS research groups are generally keen to have their work “applied,” and one of the DPI's functions is to sort through all the submissions to identify potentially useful patents. The Partnership and technology transfer services (SPV),3 a branch of the DPI, is a decentralized structure in each CNRS regional office that interfaces with research groups, and collects and identifies work with industrial or economic potential. A new unit is being established, the Industrial Policy Operational unit (COPI),4 which will select results to be patented. The unit will also negotiate licenses and framework contracts with industrial partners, to launch companies and businesses.

 

Looking to the future

One of DPI's major innovations is the creation of a unit for strategic industrial policy planning (CESPI).5 Previously, the DAE6 only dealt with the “downstream”–what happened after the research was done. The CESPI will plan ahead, and make projections for the future. This involves bringing more individuals with a research background into the personnel of the DPI, and in particular, of the CESPI. This unit will define a coherent industrial policy (currently, many issues are dealt with on a case-by-case basis) and contribute to more general CNRS objective planning, specifically concerning research orientations and priorities. Ledoux emphasizes that this will not translate into controlling or directing any individual researcher's work, but the very opposite: encouraging industrial players to become involved in, and benefit from CNRS projects. CESPI will also analyze intellectual property and decide what to do with it: patent innovations which cluster with existing CNRS patents; identify pivotal or “seed” patents, which open up new areas; and sell “orphan” patents, those isolated from areas important to CNRS. The reorganization of CNRS industrial relations units and Ledoux's program to increase the organization's visibility are key strategic maneuvres in establishing a dynamic communication process between research and economy, a goal that can't be ignored in the 21st century.

 

Alex Edelman

Notes :

1. Direction de la Politique Industrielle. This unit replaces the Office of industrial relations (DAE, Délégation aux Entreprises).
2. Pôles de compétitivité, see CNRS International Magazine n°1, p4.
3. Service du partenariat et de la valorisation.
4. Cellule opérationnelle de politique industrielle.
5. Cellule stratégique de politique industrielle.
6. Previous incarnation of the DPI, see note 1.


Contacts :

Marc Ledoux
Direction de la Politique Industrielle
Marc.Ledoux@cnrs-dir.fr


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