ROBERT Redhammer envisions a university campus where firms involved in scientific and technological ventures regularly bump into students and routinely involve them in their projects, while students have an opportunity to work on diploma theses that could have better practical applications. Redhammer, the rector of the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava, the country’s oldest technical university, believes this kind of model would also help to retain experienced professors and keep them inspired as well.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Redhammer about the importance of innovation to society and the challenges that Slovakia faces in this field.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia has a long tradition of technical education since the establishment of the Academy of Mining and Forestry in Banská Štiavnica 250 years ago. How has technical education changed since then? What current challenges does technical education face in Slovakia?
Robert Redhammer (RR): I think there have been a couple of fundamental moments, one being the introduction of free education and mandatory school attendance in Slovakia. Another was the founding of the Academy of Mining and Forestry, since mining towns such as Štiavnica and Kremnica were in need of engineers and technicians who were lacking in much of Europe. Empress Maria Theresa of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire introduced some education-related reforms to set the country on the right track and she understood that it was more effective for the empire to nurture its own engineers than bring people from other countries. Her administration supported the founding of technical schools in the mining field and then came other institutions of higher education, academies with a technical orientation and a focus on geology and iron processing. The number of students in one class reached 30, which was relatively large compared to other schools that had five students per class. The mining academy functioned here for 150 years and its closure was caused by political changes rather than its operation. About twenty years later, in 1937, the Technical University of M. R. Štefánik opened, which is actually our university, first established in Košice; thus we are marking our 75th year of existence.
Today we have more technical schools in Slovakia. I do think that the culture of education in the subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and natural sciences is strong enough here in Slovakia but recently we have been feeling certain effects from the gradual dismantling of these subjects in general education at elementary and secondary schools. Yet, the number of properly-educated people is still relatively high. Over the past 20 years there have been different types of reforms and within some of these reforms, for example, the amount of mathematics taught at secondary schools has been reduced, which negatively impacts technical education in particular as well as the overall education of the young generation. The teaching of mathematics, physics and natural sciences in Slovakia’s general education over the past 75 years has been very good and Slovak industry is still benefiting from that.
TSS: You have been advocating the idea that transfer of academic knowledge is crucial for society. How do you see Slovakia’s position in the area of innovation?
RR: Slovakia has been criticised for having a weak position. If we count only in a technocratic way, we might not find any shocking numbers, especially not in certain categories, but on the other hand we need to realise that no extra steps can substitute for what really should work naturally. It is not enough to create something at a university and then sell the invention licence to someone. You need people who transfer this knowledge into practical applications, who know how the invention works, and each transfer must go along with the people. Thus, the success of innovation is not really about the number of patents. We have a relatively low number of patents, only 10 registered for our institution, but then, as well, about 200 patents which involved our people – colleagues who were working abroad where these patents were registered. We have many skilled people but it is easier to submit an invention for patenting somewhere where there is a well-working mechanism.
We are now facing the challenge of creating our own university policy for innovation as well as to develop mechanisms of cooperation with business. Twenty years ago things were dismantled in a sort of post-revolution craze but a new system has not been developed. Recently, there were visions that it needs to be done at the level of the state, but that can never really work because bureaucrats, no matter how hard they try, could never handle all those specifics at each school and if this process does not happen right where the ideas germinate, then it will not work at all.
We do have micro-training here, inspired by a project from Oxford University that has its own trade
company, Isis Innovations, which carries out all forms of technology transfer, and Oxford elaborated some recommendations for us. Nevertheless, we are still struggling with a lack of people who are able to oversee such a project over the longer term since a slightly better budget is necessary compared to what we have currently. But I hope that we will now be able to finance more of our own projects, not only do so through others’ projects which always have some limitations.
TSS: What kinds of barriers prevent more effective transfer of innovations?
RR: The most significant barrier to the development of innovations comes from Europe’s business structure as well as the difficulty in breaking into global markets. Just imagine that there is a group of young people here who develop an innovation and they transfer it to production and gain a market in Slovakia. Then if they just want to enter the Czech Republic, they must create another business strategy for that market. If they want to go to Hungary, they must translate everything into Hungarian and there is so much investment required before the cash flow comes. Just imagine that in the US you create a product and you instantly have a huge market and rather than making investments into multiple business strategies you can invest into innovation. You can instantly sell in Canada and Australia without a language barrier. Of course there are positive examples here, for example ESET. By offering its products through the internet the company did not need to break through the European barriers but they directly entered the global market instead. The company provides encouragement that IT investments in Bratislava in cooperation with the business sector will pay off.
TSS: Is there a trend for researchers and other innovative people to leave Slovakia?
RR: I would, perhaps, not term it that way. Of course, we have a lack of professionals in certain areas but in some other areas they are really strong. I do think that some of the recently initiated projects, and the fact that large institutions in Slovakia are starting to talk to each other, means there is a process of crystallisation. It shows that there are quite strong groups here not only in IT but in other areas such as materials technology, electro-technology, and surface physics as well as bio-technologies for the food industry or even renewable energy. Then there are medical biotechnologies in which the Slovak Academy of Sciences and Comenius University are rather well established. It seems there is a platform which is becoming more visible. From this point of view I think that the situation is not that bad. On the other hand, if particularly skilled people find an opportunity to travel abroad, they will probably go.
TSS: How do you view the level of private investment in R&D in Slovakia?
RR: So far it is quite low. But I have to immediately add that I am moderately optimistic: several firms have announced investments in this area and we have been able to participate as well. For example, IBM decided to open a laboratory in Slovakia and it has secured financial resources and we are participating there. I hope that we will be able to create units with strong competencies within scientific parks that can represent a critical mass. We have started joint projects with three additional companies and the first critical mass could be created in Mlynská Dolina with a focus on information technology.
We have also noticed that Volkswagen is ready to invest in a similar project. Slovaks often criticise foreign firms for not investing enough in research in Slovakia. But imagine you are an investor with companies all over the world and you arrive to a new country which you do not know very well; you certainly do not locate the most sensitive part of your business there. Certainly, the first step is to create some kind of branch, then to launch regular operations so that the firm develops its business and nurtures human capital in line with its corporate culture, and then after it is tested over several years it decides to make further investments. This is exactly what Volkswagen has done; after 20 years the time has come to take a braver step. There will be other firms that will invest in research but they first must create the groundwork and see that we do not live in trees and that society is ready for the next step.
So I am an optimist and think that other firms will make investments in research. But, of course, it will also depend on whether they decide there is a potential for research here, whether they find the people who are able to do the exact kind of research they need, or whether the education system is able to respond readily. None of this happens automatically.
TSS: Could you tell us some ways to build more bridges between academia and business?
RR: We have picked the path of university scientific-technological parks. We are developing three of our four university areas through these projects and are attracting firms to our campuses to cooperate directly with them there. We want them to be on our campuses so that they regularly bump into students and involve them in their development projects. Also in this way the scientific-technological parks can add stability to our faculty members so they stay within the university and students also have an opportunity to work on topics for their diploma theses that have more practical applications. In fact, this direct connection is crucial. This is what we need to arrange now and we have already submitted a project to create the groundwork for this vision.
TSS: The Ministry of Education published two calls in December for projects to develop university-scientific parks and research centres, involving €335 million. Has your university applied?
RR: Yes, we have submitted two projects: one in Bratislava for the development of a university-scientific park involving €44.5 million and a similar project in Trnava, where we have a faculty oriented on materials sciences and technologies. We hope that it will work out well.
TSS: The Slovak University of Technology is home to a technology incubator. Where did the university get the inspiration for this and what have been its results?
RR: It is a technology incubator that supports startup companies on the condition that they also support technical solutions and innovations. The intention is to stimulate and inspire young people to start their own businesses. Over 35 businesses have so far been supported in this way and we have tried to support the establishment of these companies in such a way that the university also has a share so that the funds that have been invested in the incubator or in particular research bring a return to the university. But we have a very clear dividing line between the private and the institutional investments.