2/2017

Synergy between science and industry

Alessandro Foi is a scientist and entrepreneur. Despite giving pride of place to rigorous academic research, he highlights industry collaboration as the key to maximizing the positive impacts that research can have on our society.

Alessandro Foi

 

Alessandro Foi knows that research and commercialization can be combined in a way that benefits both science and companies, and eventually society too.

 

WHO: Alessandro Foi, 41 years

  • Associate Professor (tenure track), Laboratory of Signal Processing
  • DTech in 2007, TUT.
  • Born in São Paulo, has lived most of his life in Milan.
  • Research topics: mathematical and statistical signal processing methods, especially noise modeling and image restoration.
  • Established Noiseless Imaging Ltd together with Professor Karen Egiazarian and with the support of other colleagues in 2011. The company sells image and video processing software.
 

When Associate Professor Alessandro Foi talks about research results and their commercialization, he often mentions the word ’synergy’. Noiseless Imaging Ltd established by Foi and his colleagues is an excellent example of just that.

”During our term as the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence, the signal processing research group at Tampere University of Technology (TUT) developed image and video denoising methods that were and still remain state of the art. Companies were keen to purchase our technology, but the conventional forms of university-industry collaboration did not meet our needs,” describes Foi.

Before transferring their research results to industry, the researchers wanted to understand the potential scope of application of these technologies, having two goals in mind: reserve the rights for further and unrestricted research in this area and prevent a single industrial entity to install a monopoly that would prevent other companies to leverage the results in other fields.

”It became obvious that we would have to establish a separate spin-off company to commercialize our technologies and reap the synergies.”

Foi believes that universities should always retain some form of control over their valuable technologies and ideas.

”Similar arrangements are in place, for example, in many German, French, Swiss, and American universities. They have industrial partners that utilize research results for commercial purposes, but at the same time the results remain available to researchers.”

Long history of successful industry collaboration

Foi has pursued close collaboration with industry and business as a TUT researcher since 2004. He believes that the success of industry collaboration does not necessarily depend on signing extensive agreements with global giants.

”At its best, this type of collaboration is bilateral: the company stays up to date with the latest research while the researchers are exposed to the latest concrete challenges in the field. It is thus essential that the collaboration revolves around the top expertise of a researcher and genuine industry challenges.”

Foi believes that it is critical to keep academic research separate from commercial activities.

”Specific technical or R&D problems of individual companies are often unsuitable topics for high-quality research and clearly fall outside the university sphere. But if an industrial challenge has broader significance for the research field and might result in a significant scientific contribution, that is worthy of being published in a prestigious journal and included in a doctoral dissertation, then it can be considered as focus of university-based efforts.”

Industry collaboration strengthens the impact of research

Foi is well aware that some of his colleagues take a critical stance towards industry collaboration in the name of scientific freedom. He admits that in some cases it may be problematic, but scientists cannot withdraw into their scholarly domains if they want their work to contribute to society.

“Tax payers support our research, and they deserve value for money. The question is how we can best maximize the impacts of our research.”

As Foi points out, companies have produced the majority of everything around us, such as buildings, equipment, machines and services. Research cannot bring maximum benefits to society, if scientists want nothing to do with companies.

”And it would be fair for our research results to primarily benefit companies in Finland rather than let them escape abroad.”

What being global really means

Noiseless Imaging Ltd was born, because Hervanta genuinely is home to world-leading expertise in image and video processing. The research results initially attracted attention from Asia. Current customers are companies from Finland and abroad. The most important one is FLIR, the world’s foremost manufacturer of thermal imaging cameras.

”We had interesting solutions that allowed FLIR to turn their thermal imaging cameras into affordable and highly competitive consumer products and expand into a whole new market. The company surveyed the technical offering and competence worldwide and identified us as their supplier of cutting-edge image filtering solutions, and our collaboration has now continued for six years.”

Foi thinks that the members of the TUT community often incorrectly assume Aalto University to be our main rival.

“Sometimes it is, but in reality competition is everywhere. FLIR is headquartered in California, but the image-processing software for their cameras is not developed at MIT or Stanford but in Hervanta.” 

Text: Kati Vastamäki
Photo: Mika Kanerva

 
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