"Convincing people to transfer research findings to industry"

A discussion with Prof. Dr. Heinz Trasch

It’s all change at the helm of the Steinbeis Foundation: After eight years in office, the Board Chairman, Prof. Dr. Heinz Trasch, is stepping down for age reasons. The new Steinbeis Foundation Board took up duties after the Board of Trustees meeting at the end of March. TRANSFER joined Heinz Trasch to look back on his work at Steinbeis headquarters – and beyond to his time as director of a Transfer Center in the Steinbeis Network.

Professor Trasch, when you were appointed chairman of the Steinbeis Foundation Board in 2004, you stated in an article in the former TRANSFER newspaper that expanding the Steinbeis Transfer Network was one of your key responsibilities. The Network now spans over 850 centers. What challenges did this growth bring?

Looking back over the years, the demand for support wasn’t always constant. If anything, it fluctuated. There are times when demand is low but also times when the demand for our knowledge-based services is strong. The task of managing projects lies with the Steinbeis enterprise. With the existing infrastructure, projects often progress at a regular pace. But at the headquarters level, we sense this volatility in contract behavior acutely. We’re a service provider, and such companies deal with peaks and troughs with effective or efficient processes or spare capacity. This also applies to the other activities needed when a network is constantly growing. On the other side of the coin, this dynamic process of continuously setting up new centers ensures that specialist skills and competences in the Transfer Network are always kept up to date. So we’re always in a position to offer our customers the very latest technology.

To keep up the momentum of Steinbeis Transfer Network expansion, we’ve imposed new structures in central areas of the Network based in Stuttgart and optimized existing processes. This involved pinpointing and realizing potential. To keep processes running smoothly, we now have clearly defined contacts for people inside and outside the Transfer Network. We portray Steinbeis to our customers as a brand and a successful provider of technology transfer services.

Successful competitive technology transfer, in the way we promote it, is something that’s desired by the Baden-Württemberg state government. It’s captured in general contracts and delivered by professors at universities and universities of applied sciences, as well as freelancers. The customers who use these services are mainly based in the areas the knowledge stems from. So maintaining contacts with universities is also central to our task at headquar- ters. This is partly because rectors and presidents change regularly, but also because universities appoint new professors. So strategies have to be discussed with key players, collaboration arrangements have to be set up and young professors need to be convinced of the merits of transfer. Personal contacts amongst representatives of politics, chambers of commerce, associations and research institutions – combined with participation on committees and involvement in business cluster development – also help engender trust, so these are very important to us.

Before coming to Steinbeis headquarters, you headed up the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Technology Consultancy at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences. Before that, you worked in research and industry. Based on this wealth of experience, where do you see current and future synergies for universities as being particularly important sources for us, professors and Steinbeis in knowledge and technology transfer?

If we look back 20 or 30 years, our sources of information in the transfer process were almost exclusively state “technical colleges.” The newly appointed professors at these colleges were experienced people from companies who wanted to share their specialist knowledge and practical experience with students through lectures. Third-party research at technical colleges was still in its infancy. But professors who were active in R&D exploited every opportunity to work on development projects with companies, or offer their knowledge and services to local companies. Professors engaged in research, who also participated in transfer, had an “edge on others” as they had more recent insights or access to more up-to-date technology. At the time, university professors used this to their advantage by joining the Steinbeis Transfer Network. This shows that, in many cases, successful competitive technology transfer has to come before fundamental research and application-based research. This is why many of our project or center managers are actively involved in third-party research at universities of applied science.

Graduate education has changed over the years. The technical colleges became universities of applied sciences. In addition to teaching and research, which is still not obligatory at those universities, emphasis is placed on managing your own work. Universities of applied sciences compete with one another for funding based on performance. Securing sponsorship from third parties safeguards more financial backing from government departments. This is the main reason why the managers of these universities are so interested in third-party research at the university. This includes industrial projects carried out directly at the university, which don’t involve Steinbeis. The interests of the newly appointed professors have also changed. Previously, professors were attracted to universities of applied sciences because they were interested in teaching. Now, they’re more likely to be interested in research. The equipment at university departments and laboratories is much better now, which doesn’t just make research easier, it promotes it. There’s an ever-growing need for us to win people over at universities of applied sciences and convince them that the findings of research should be shared with industry so that they can make use of them and enhance their international competitiveness through innovative products.

Small and medium-sized companies involved in competitive enterprises in all sectors of industry are sometimes unable to fund innovative leaps with their own means. They will also need technology transfer support in the future.

Steinbeis will continue to ensure it nurtures contacts in all departments at both types of university to maintain and expand the variety of scientific disciplines worked on at Steinbeis Centers. Steinbeis supports research at both types of university because it is a prerequisite of successful competitive technology transfer, so we will continue to do this in the future. One of your favorite quotes comes from the entrepreneur Philip Rosenthal, “If you stop improving, you stop being good.” Which areas should be promoted more in technology transfer? What recommendations would you give to your successors to keep development within the Steinbeis Transfer Network moving  forward?

Of course we have to improve to stay good. We’re in constant competition with bodies that promote knowledge through research and want to share research findings with industry. We have to keep close tabs on changes in political opinion-forming, academia and business. We have to react to the latest developments, and, if necessary, tweak our strategies and maintain the momentum of the expansion of the Steinbeis Network. So we’re not standing still, this is a dynamic environment which requires our undivided attention. We have to constantly adapt our jointly agreed, clearly defined goals to new situations, and pursue our goals relentlessly. This value-based development at Steinbeis creates stability within the organization and is rewarded by our customers with recognition and respect. The standard of our services and the fact that we keep our promises have made us a popular technology transfer partner. We have been able to carry over successes from the past to the present by implementing appropriate measures, and Steinbeis technology transfer will continue to develop successfully along similar lines in the future – by adapting quickly and continuously to developments in our immediate environment.

I don’t need to make a recommendation on how to keep the Steinbeis Transfer Network moving forward, as my successor has played a decisive role at Steinbeis up until now, so he’s in an ideal position to further the success of Steinbeis in the future.


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