Public Service Review: European Science and Technology - Issue 5
A forkful of findings
04 January 2010
Mogens Madsen, CEO of Dianova Ltd, looks at how Danish universities are improving knowledge transfer from universities to the food industry
It is a fact that Europe is less effective in turning research results into commercial business, job opportunities and societal wealth than, for example, the United States.
One of the causes for this has to do with university traditions; in the US, there is a long tradition of a close interface between academia and industry, with sponsorships and industry-funded research and development projects at the universities, and the presence of industry in science parks closely connected to the university. While in Europe, universities, at least in the past, have been hesitant to engage with industry for fear of losing academic independence and impartiality.
Another cause is historic. Europe is composed of many independent states, each with their own research agenda and funding schemes. This situation has been alleviated by several EU research initiatives, eg. Framework Programmes, ERA Net, Technological Platforms with industry involvement, etc., but so far this has not been sufficient for Europe to improve or even maintain its competitiveness in relation to the US and the booming Asian economies.
Everybody agrees that increased competitiveness and market leadership depends heavily on the speed of innovation taking place in companies and industry sectors. But how does one speed up the innovation process and the transfer of knowledge?
Knowledge transfer is essential
Innovation may basically be either user-inspired or technology-driven. User-inspired technology, in short, is the situation when a customer or consumer has an uncovered need that is fulfilled by the provision of a new product, while technology-driven innovation is the development or invention of a new product that later in the process turns out to be filling a need that the customer had not even realised was there.
However, few companies are large enough to be able to finance and accommodate their own R&D departments. Most companies (and this is particularly true for Denmark, with only a few large companies and a wealth of SMEs) are dependent on the transfer of knowledge and new ideas from universities and other public research institutions.
Many countries have realised the need for knowledge transfer from public research to private industry, and have supported initiatives like the formation of Tech-Trans offices and business units at the universities, matchmaking events between private industry and universities, etc. One way of perfecting this approach may be the establishment of a separate company with a commercial focus that provides a one-stop shopping point between food and agricultural industries and the research expertise available at national universities.
Scientific excellence at the service of the industry
In 2006-2007, a major reorganisation of publicly funded research took place in Denmark. Prior to 2006, applied and problem-oriented research was carried out by sector research institutes serving particular ministries, ie. the ministry of environment, the transport ministry, the ministry of food, agriculture and fisheries, etc. By the reorganisation, virtually all sector research activities in Denmark were transferred to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and became part of one of the existing Danish universities. Thus, most of the previous sector research on food safety, animal health and fisheries was incorporated in the Technical University of Denmark.
This merger combined technology and biology by drawing on the technological expertise available in the form of engineering skills at the Technical University of Denmark, as well as the practical and solution-oriented biological skills available at the Danish National Food and National Veterinary Institutes. It provided a unique opportunity for disseminating and utilising the knowledge that originates from international research, and at the same time met the needs of the food and livestock industry, and provided a one-stop solution to commercial operators in the food industry, covering the complete 'farm to fork' continuum with respect to prevention of diseases and health improvement for animals and people.
In the present global setting, international trade and cooperation is becoming ever more important. A very significant added value to the inclusion of sector research activities into the Technical University of Denmark was the strong tradition of research into trans-boundary animal diseases and zoonoses. Danish researchers play a leading role in two large EU-funded Networks of Excellence within food safety and the prevention of zoonoses like Salmonella and Campylobacter (MedVetNet), and within the diagnosis, prevention and control of devastating animal diseases like Foot and Mouth and Swine Fever (EPIZONE).
By tradition, sector-specific researchers participate in several international networks and organisations, playing an important role in the formation of international rules and regulations on food quality and safety, and on animal health surveillance and control. The list is long, and includes, among others, WHO, Codex Alimentarius, EFSA, CEN and ISO committees and working groups.
In-depth knowledge of rules and regulations
Food production and sales are regulated by detailed directives and regulations from the EU. All member states have an obligation to implement EU regulations within time limits described in the legislation.
In Europe, food control has been standardised and contains regulations, standards and methods valid for many issues such as hygiene, zoonoses, drugs used in production animals, labelling, threshold limit values for chemical contaminants, different nutrients, concentration of veterinary drugs, migration from packaging materials, microbiological criteria, etc. Also, the laboratory control of food products, the analyses and methods used are regulated by EU directives.
Through the participation of key experts in working groups establishing the scientific basis for EU regulations on animal production and food safety, a deep and detailed insight into the complex legislative and regulatory demands on the animal and food industries is provided. This expertise, not often available at traditional universities, is highly valued, both by food producers within the European Union that must comply with the regulations and by food exporting companies wanting to export food products into the European Union.
Through this merger and reorganisation of research activities and the formation of a one-stop science outlet, the Technical University of Denmark and other Danish universities may now be in a position to provide food producers, importers, wholesale dealers and the retail market with individually adapted solutions. These may include analyses, risk assessment, product development, training courses, monitoring, surveillance and self-inspection of production processes:
• Analyses: The whole range of food quality and safety may be obtained in one place with respect to chemical additives, residues, physical and technical properties, pollution and toxic materials, nutrients and allergy inducing ingredients, bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that may be transmitted to human beings as foodborne diseases;
• Risk assessments: Design, modelling and risk assessment of production processes throughout the entire food chain can be provided to the industry. Risk assessments may cover all health risks associated with food, including infections, chemical and microbiological contaminants, the risk of chronic illness and potential hazards associated with foods and food technologies;
• Import-export: Companies can be assisted in meeting the EU requirements for import into the European countries, eg. in the form of guidance on specified European regulations or even by audits 'on the spot' of animal or food production to tell if the production meets the requirements for European legislation and import into the EU;
• Training and education: As a teaching institution, universities have long-standing experience in organising both practical and theoretical courses relating to animal health and food safety. Recent and present training activities comprise subjects like microbiological criteria, food contact materials, laboratory analyses and methods, zoonoses and HACCP (Hazard Analyses, Critical Control Points) in production.