If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



RWTH Aachen University Seeks To Enroll Companies Like Students

The German university is building one of Europe’s largest science campuses with the help of industrial partners

by Alex Scott
April 29, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 17

Credit: RWTH
RWTH aims to locate 11 clusters and more than 100 companies on the Melaten campus zone.
Artist’s impression of what the technology campus will look like when fully populated.
Credit: RWTH
RWTH aims to locate 11 clusters and more than 100 companies on the Melaten campus zone.

Ernst M. Schmachtenberg, rector of Germany’s RWTH Aachen University has an ambitious plan to make his university an internationally renowned center for collaborative, multidisciplinary scientific research. It involves a wave of partnerships with industry to create one of Europe’s largest science and technology campuses.

“We’d like to enroll industry just as we enroll our students,” says Schmachtenberg, who is also a chemical engineering professor. In fact, he wants to recruit 250 companies to occupy two new campus zones. So far, 100 companies have committed to participate in the project alongside 31 RWTH departments. Total investment costs are estimated at more than $2.6 billion. The initiative will meet the university’s need for more research capacity and technology firms’ need for innovation, Schmachtenberg says.

If successful, the plan will also enable RWTH to offset a budget shortfall expected from the planned withdrawal in 2017 of a German government education initiative that in recent years has given the university a financial boost.

At the heart of the university’s plan is the creation of 19 multidisciplinary research clusters—with names such as plastics technology and surface engineering—that are focused on technology solutions to global problems. “We want to integrate different research areas and fill the role between the different disciplines,” Schmachtenberg says.

Chemistry plays an important role in the university’s strategy because it has potential to address the interface between the natural and engineering sciences. Already, chemistry is one of the university’s largest departments, with 1,100 students and 300 staffers, 100 of whom are funded by third parties. The department’s central role will strengthen not only the university’s chemistry research capability but also its interaction with other disciplines and with external partners from academia and industry, says Walter Leitner, a professor of technical chemistry and petrochemistry at RWTH.

A potential problem with RWTH’s plan to strengthen ties with industry is that it could distract the university from its role as an educator. But the program has been designed to reinforce, not compromise, the education of students, Leitner maintains. “At RWTH we have recognized that collaboration with industry can help us on both ends. If we had to cut down on education to do more applied research—that would be a disaster. And we are certainly not going that way,” he says.

Each of the 19 clusters is set to have its own center and R&D facilities on campus along with shared seminar areas and auxiliary facilities, including one for child care. Each cluster is expected to have 20 or more commercial partners. “It’s not enough to cooperate in a linear chain anymore. All parts of the value chain need to come together,” Schmachtenberg says.

The idea of creating research clusters in Germany is not new. Other universities, including ones in Berlin, Darmstadt, Heidelberg, and Munich, also have them. But it is the scale of RWTH’s initiative that sets it apart. The new campus will have room for 250 companies and is expected to generate about 10,000 direct and indirect jobs. At capacity it will be one of the largest technology-oriented academic institutions in Europe.

Initial development is already under way. Plots have been marked out, infrastructure has been created, and some of the buildings for six initial research clusters have been built. The first six clusters are biomedical engineering, logistics, integrative production technology, heavy-duty and off-highway power train, photonics, and sustainable energy. Other clusters will focus on aspects of transmission systems, engines, plastics, metals, chemicals, fibers, and mobile communication.

The university plans to establish a strong life sciences presence on the new campus, in part because Germany’s largest hospital, University Hospital Aachen, is located on RWTH’s existing campus. The biomedical engineering cluster has two buildings and features 10 companies with a total of about 120 staff members. The companies include the electronics giant Philips, dental laser technology firm AALZ, and the scientific research services provider AKM.

Meanwhile, a private firm is investing up to $33 million in the logistics cluster, which will comprise almost 350 people and 20 companies and feature offices, manufacturing space, and labs. The logistics cluster will study the flow of materials and information between individual workplaces in factories. Cluster partners are already at work in a temporary research site.

Additional research clusters are in the process of being created. The university plans to launch all 19 of them, complete with science facilities and office buildings, by the end of 2022.

Funding for the project comes to a large extent from private investors; public funds will be used mainly for infrastructure such as streets and buildings used exclusively by the university. “No other university in Germany has as much project funding as we do,” Schmachtenberg says proudly.

RWTH Aachen University Facts And Figures




Location: Aachen, Germany

Annual budget: $1.0 billion

External funding: $423 million

Portion from industry: $107 million

State funding: $558 million

Professors: 498

Other academic staff: 4,492

Nonfaculty staff (including externally funded staff): 2,346

Students: 37,917

2012 graduates: 5,749

Academic strengths include engineering and chemistry

Generated 1,250 start-ups in past 20 years

Creating 19 research clusters

Planning to attract 250 companies and more than $2.6 billion of investment


The new campus will be established in two zones: Melaten, a greenfield site that is set to skirt around the town of Aachen, and Westbahnhof, a zone reaching into the town center. Aachen itself is located in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most heavily industrialized state and the home to chemical companies including Bayer, Evonik Industries, and Lanxess. It is also just a few miles from the Netherlands and Belgium.

The German energy company E.ON has built an energy research center on the Melaten site. It is the first building to have been established by members of the sustainable energy cluster. “We are facing a paradigm shift in energy supplies. We want to develop solutions to this problem together with universities,” says Stephan Ramesohl, vice president for technology and innovation for E.ON.

The firm has equipped the center to investigate questions relating to energy-efficient building technology, climate change, smart homes, demand-side management, and the use of electric vehicles as energy stores. The center also will tackle interdisciplinary topics in cooperation with industry.

Bosch Rexroth, a German developer of drive, control, and movement systems for wind turbines, is a member of the heavy-duty drive systems and components cluster. It was attracted to the project because “we can train and instruct our employees on the campus in various qualifications programs,” says Markus Kamp, manager for hydraulics with Bosch Rexroth.

Many of RWTH’s existing industry collaborations are bilateral partnerships or projects with a handful of companies rather than the 20 or more that are expected to participate in the new clusters. An example is a collaboration set up with Bayer in 2008 to develop novel catalytic processes. Called the CAT Catalytic Center, the partnership is expected to receive more than $25 million over a 10-year period.

The CAT center is fully integrated into the university, Leitner says. The university envisages similar forms of “matriculation” for industrial partners that will populate the new clusters, he adds.

Bayer’s benefits from its partnership with RWTH include the creation of intellectual property and the ability to attract talent, according to Christoph Guertler, head of the CAT center for Bayer. The university itself has excellent labs and the firm’s presence there has enabled Bayer to draw on other areas of expertise such as chemical engineering, Guertler says. “It’s one of Bayer’s closest collaborations,” he adds, noting that Bayer is also interested in the multiparty research approach of the new clusters.

Closer to the research cluster model than Bayer’s catalyst partnership is SusChemSys, a sustainable chemistry network for research and graduate education RWTH formed in January 2012 with five other academic institutions and seven industrial partners.

SusChemSys features 36 research projects involving 36 professors and 41 Ph.D. students. The individual projects are linked by three goals: atom-efficient catalysis, alternative raw materials, and asymmetric synthesis. SusChemSys has a budget of $6.7 million, of which the partners provided $1.8 million and local government organizations the rest.

SusChemSys involved the creation of a new kind of structure in which the industrial partners did not have a direct say in the way the research would be undertaken, says Leitner, who is also the network’s scientific coordinator. “Sorting out the details was not trivial at all,” he says. But he claims it was worth it. “All the stakeholders worked together to get the science and innovation going.”

The network is less than halfway through its three-year program, and already its scientists have published several papers. Future collaborative efforts from partners are in sight, says Stefanie-Joana Tenne, a biotechnologist and coordinator for SusChemSys. Companies involved in SusChemSys include the chemical makers Bayer, Evonik, Oxea, and Solvay; the consumer products maker Henkel; and the adhesives firm Jowat.

The German Chemical Industry Association tells C&EN that its members welcome the development of a cluster approach to research and the concept of the new RWTH campus in particular. Closer cooperation between academia and industry is appreciated, according to the group. Typically, companies that participate in research clusters are start-ups, but major chemical firms increasingly are becoming involved, the group says.

RWTH already has a strong track record of working with technology firms. In 2012 it brought in $423 million in third-party funds. That’s twice what it was five years ago and more than any other university in Germany, Schmachtenberg says.

The income means that the university makes a significant contribution to local services by way of its tax contribution. Local people have welcomed the university’s plans, with Aachen Mayor Marcel Philipp describing the initiative as the biggest development opportunity in decades. “It’s not like Oxford where you have the town and gown,” Schmachtenberg says.

Whether researching for a local company or one outside of Germany, RWTH understands industrial needs, Schmachtenberg contends. RWTH also has the hardware to go with its know-how, such as one of the biggest nuclear magnetic resonance machines in the region and technical laboratories that enable the move from lab scale to miniplants, he says. Schmachtenberg should know what industry is looking for: For several years during the 1980s, he worked as a chemical engineer developing optical compact discs for Bayer.

Schmachtenberg expects the new campus to enhance the university’s goals of educating students and conducting fundamental research. “The main process for technology companies is to earn money by generating innovative products from knowledge,” he says. “At RWTH we do the opposite: We spend money to make knowledge by researching new ideas. We have to accept this approach if we are to take the best path for society.”


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.