Deep Tech, High Touch: The New University Innovation Ecosystem

  Four people standing at lecterns in a studio Copyright: © Stefanie Loos/Landesvertretung NRW

Universities are places where a community of experts is continuously creating new knowledge – innovation is therefore also part of everyday business there. At the same time, university structures are finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the increasing demands placed on them by society. Universities are supposed to address major global challenges, develop key technologies to keep Germany competitive as a business location, and adequately prepare the new generation of workers and social leaders for the future. How can they contribute to this while maintaining their freedom and independence? What ideas and processes from industry, start-ups, and social enterprises are revitalizing and renewing the self-image of universities?


The panel Deep Tech, High Touch: The New University Innovation Ecosystem found initial answers to what an ecosystem with players from different sectors needs to enable innovation.

Anne Schreiter and RWTH Professor Frank Piller welcomed Deutsche Bahn Board Member for Digitalization and Technology Professor Sabina Jeschke, Science Senator for Hamburg Katharina Fegebank, founder of "zukunft zwei" Carolin Silbernagl, founder and RWTH Professor Günther Schuh, and BMBF State Secretary Thomas Rachel.

  Film studio Copyright: © Stefanie Loos/Landesvertretung NRW

Innovation needs knowledge transfer – sector changes must become easier for this

"We need a new ecosystem for cooperation between universities and industry," said Sabina Jeschke. Such a new ecosystem would emerge almost by itself if experts did not have to commit themselves to one sector. By working in multiple or alternating positions at universities, in industry, in NGOs, or in politics, knowledge can be better distributed and thus promote innovation. This is particularly true for technology transfer. Günther Schuh agreed, saying he would like to see the option of his career as a professor and founder as a viable option for even more of his colleagues at German universities. Universities should therefore encourage students to try out several roles at an early stage, for example by founding a company or getting involved in social and political activities, added Sabina Jeschke.


Why innovation? Universities offer great potential for innovation, but they need to more precisely define how they will contribute to a fair and sustainable future

But how can an innovation ecosystem actually be designed? First, Katharina Fegebank generally outlined this, using Hamburg as an example: The fundamental strategy is to create benefits for all city residents, with science playing a central role in this: "Use science as an engine for city development. To get the engine running. Cooperation with business, society, and politics is needed – something that paid off during the coronavirus pandemic, for example. The main task then, is to enable the players to be open and connected with each other.

  Carolin Silbernagl at a lectern Copyright: © Stefanie Loos/Landesvertretung NRW

Carolin Silbernagl also addressed the role of universities in innovation ecosystems: In view of global crises with the environment, resources, and biodiversity, universities offer a true treasure trove of innovation: Where else do internationally networked experts from so many disciplines work under one roof to understand problems and develop solutions for them? This potential must be (better) exploited. To do so, universities must see themselves as a supporting structure of society and set themselves a clear vision of how they can contribute to a fair and sustainable future. "The University needs to work alongside society with constant contact points beyond conferences and campus rooms," is Silbernagl's credo.

To achieve this, the self-image of science must evolve: The openness that Katharina Fegebank already mentioned as a prerequisite for innovation must then be reflected, for example, in the fact that scientific actors can work together with diverse social groups. Non-academics and groups of people outside the universities would then be less a pure source of data and more experts and discussion partners as equals. Silbernagl gave the example of how nurses were actively involved in the design of management processes in care facilities.


Innovatively teaching innovation – universities should encourage explorative learning and curiosity

The panel agreed that a changed self-image of science must also be reflected in teaching. According to Günther Schuh, universities should no longer primarily focus on lecturing, rather on research and testing learned skills and knowledge. More project work is needed, to integrate the aspects of "researching" and "realizing", he said, referring to the RWTH's anniversary motto of "Lernen. Forschen. Machen."

Real experiences from the corporate world – such as the fact that a large proportion of promising deep-tech innovations in this country went to investors from China, the US, and Saudi Arabia – would also have to shape university teaching, for example by integrating management and finance topics into engineering courses at an early stage. The question of what exactly a successor model to a traditional lecture might look like remained open, at least during the panel.

Sabina Jeschke emphasized the need to encourage students: Universities should give young people the confidence to concentrate on research areas in which they are not (yet) specialists. After all, it is precisely in these areas that innovations are usually still possible. But this also means increased and stronger promotion of stays abroad, as they enable students to develop not only their self-confidence but also their language skills, cultural understanding, and soft skills.

New research areas that need confident creative minds include, for example, RWTH's "Internet of Production" Cluster of Excellence. Günther Schuh is convinced: "That is the opportunity of the digitalized world in industry and it comes with the sense of our young generation." Massive overproduction as a negative side effect of the industrial revolution could be stopped in the future – a real innovation.

  State Secretary Thomas Rachel Copyright: © Stefanie Loos/Landesvertretung NRW

What can remain the same? Access to education and investment in research and teaching are key conditions

Despite all the need for improvement and requests for change, at the end of the round, State Secretary Thomas Rachel emphasized the excellent conditions for science in Germany. The budget of the two long-term major funding lines – the Excellence Initiative and the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation – clearly show the immense importance the German government places on universities and non-university research institutions. And Rachel would clearly keep one feature of the German science system: "We should keep our differentiated education system which is accessible for everyone, combined with high-quality teaching standards."

  Professor Frank Piller Copyright: © Stefanie Loos/Landesvertretung NRW

"Innovation happens when ideas have sex," Professor Frank Piller jokingly summarizes the panel and the entire event.