Jianmei Huang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, is studying lead-free halide perovskites. Her work, in the lab of chemistry professor Peidong Yang, may lead to new lighting devices that avoid use of the toxic metal.
BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, underwrites Huang’s research through the California Research Alliance (CARA). The four-year-old effort, centered at UC Berkeley and including nine other California schools, supports research at the intersection of cutting-edge science and commercial opportunity. Although Huang wants to pursue an academic career and not a corporate research role, she said she’s excited to participate in what could be a research breakthrough. “It’s so cool,” she added.
Brylee David B. Tiu, a postdoc working in the lab of UC Berkeley bioengineering and materials science professor Phillip Messersmith, is about to file a patent on mussel-inspired adhesives. BASF’s CARA initiative supported his research, too, and scientists at the company offered advice and insight that helped move his project along.
Tiu was interested in only an academic career before getting involved in the project a year and a half ago. But his experience with BASF made him realize that scientists at the firm are also rigorous researchers. If opportunity knocked, he’d consider working there.
“In academia, you want to do something cool regardless of whether it’s commercializable or not,” Tiu said. “But now I understand what is commercializable, and that is a transferable skill.”
Huang and Tiu, and about 70 others at California institutions, are part of the German chemical maker’s largest university research alliance. BASF and California school officials say the unique framework that governs the alliance could be a new paradigm for how corporations take advantage of research on university campuses.
The partners declined to share the actual framework, although they did provide a broad outline of the basic tenets for all CARA-funded projects: The schools own the intellectual property developed with BASF funding, but the company has the right to negotiate an exclusive license for a limited time. In addition, the university has the right to publish research results without restrictions, but BASF has preview rights.
Given BASF’s size and the immensity of its investment in R&D, the alliance raises questions about how large companies conduct research with academic partners without dominating university research agendas. Critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, say corporations can divert basic research to commercial interests and undermine the role universities play in educating students and advancing knowledge in behalf of society.
Martin Brudermüller, BASF’s chairman, told a symposium in early July celebrating the alliance that his firm has developed a way to limit such interference. “What we do with CARA is unique,” Brudermüller said at the event, held in Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center.
In conversations with CARA program participants and administrators, C&EN found general agreement that CARA has brought new funding to schools hurt by state cutbacks while advancing science and maintaining academic freedom.
For BASF, CARA helps invigorate the firm’s inventive enterprise. “You cannot do research alone anymore, as we have done in the past,” said Brudermüller, who has continued as BASF’s chief technology officer since becoming chairman in May. He pointed to CARA as an essential resource in a “global R&D Verbund.”
“Verbund” is a term BASF uses to describe its far-flung but interconnected worldwide enterprise. In R&D, the Verbund includes 10,000 BASF employees and an annual budget of $2 billion. That investment, he said, generates more than 300 new products annually and $10 billion in sales every year from products less than five years old.
CARA is the largest of BASF’s four regional university research alliances. The others are in Massachusetts, Central Europe, and Asia. The firm also has collaborations with more than 600 individual universities, research institutes, and companies.
Centered at UC Berkeley and involving seven other University of California system schools as well as California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, CARA focuses on topics that straddle basic and applied research. Brudermüller said CARA is BASF’s “biggest academic engagement anywhere, in money and people.”
The program’s emphasis is on broad study areas in which BASF sees commercial opportunities: advanced materials, inorganic materials and catalysts, polymers, bioscience, and computer-aided research.
In addition to the projects Huang and Tiu are working on, postdocs at UC Berkeley are developing transparent conductive films for touch screens using silver and copper nanowires. Like Huang’s project, this one also took place under the guidance of chemistry professor Yang, who said BASF is now exploring commercialization of the technology. Another project, which recently got under way at UC Davis, is developing human milk oligosaccharidesfor nutrition applications.
Important to this type of research alliance is the need to “prevent undue corporate interference in research results,” said Genna Reed, a policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science & Democracy. She agreed that such partnerships can lead to scientific and technical advancements. But she cautioned that restrictions on publishing results would violate basic academic freedom. BASF says it maintains no such restrictions.
According to the National Science Foundation, corporate dollars represented 5.9% of the $72 billion in research spending at U.S. academic institutions in 2016, up from about 5% in 2011. More restrictions generally come with business support of research than with government support, Reed claimed. “Corporations usually want more control.”
BASF’s contribution to UC Berkeley’s scientific endeavors is welcome, but the firm certainly doesn’t control the school’s research, said Douglas Clark, dean of the school’s College of Chemistry. “We are not a manufacturing or product development arm of BASF,” he told C&EN during a visit to his office.
“We do lots of fundamental research here. And we do work that is closer to commercialization,” Clark said. “BASF is a great partner to guide us, but they do not dictate the work to be done.” And, he added, “we’re here to educate students and do research that benefits society.”
He recalled BP’s support for the Energy Biosciences Institute on campus to advance the conversion of biomass into fuel. But low oil prices and costs stemming from the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill helped bring the company’s multi-million-dollar effort to a halt last year. Corporate meddling in academic research was never an issue with the BP project, Clark said. The institute provided “an opportunity to do wonderful research.”
As Clark sees it, CARA provides a similar opportunity. A committee of university and BASF representatives regularly reviews ideas and proposals for BASF funding support, he said. Projects that are approved receive a one-year grant of about $150,000, renewable for a second year. The money goes mostly to support postdocs’ research. In a few cases, the money supports graduate students’ Ph.D. work, he said.
For three years starting with CARA’s launch in 2014, BASF contributed $3 million annually, Clark said. BASF renewed the program for another five years, through 2022. Just before the CARA symposium last month, BASF also donated $7 million toward construction of the Berkeley Science & Engineering Hub, a $180 million research facility that will contain a few labs dedicated to postdocs working on CARA-funded projects.
“Some people view industry interaction with academia skeptically, but when it’s done right, it can be extraordinary,” Clark said. “I’d like to see the CARA model implemented elsewhere.”
Although CARA officially got under way in 2014, former California Gov. Gray Davis got the ball rolling a few years earlier. Working out the details leading up to the launch took two years, recalled Yang, the chemistry professor. The effort started with a materials science workshop that brought BASF scientists to California to talk face to face with University of California counterparts about areas of mutual scientific interest.
The BASF scientists quickly saw that the UC researchers “have expertise in just about anything BASF would be interested in,” said Yang, who is now a CARA director. After that workshop, “we all decided to work together,” he added. “Then the lawyers got involved.”
Part of the agreement is that BASF scientists work at CARA member campuses to support current projects and to discuss new projects with faculty and researchers, according to Kerstin Schierle-Arndt, a BASF research manager and the firm’s CARA director. Today, five BASF scientists work at CARA schools full-time.
Rather than conduct their own research, the resident scientists, working with academic counterparts, evaluate new projects and make sure they fit commercially for BASF and academically for the schools, Schierle-Arndt said. In some cases, the resident scientists arrange for a BASF researcher to work alongside a postdoc or the postdoc to work at a BASF lab for a limited time, she said.
The on-site BASF people are “critical” to forming CARA projects, UC Berkeley’s Yang pointed out. “They know the technical problems a chemical firm faces.” Periodic meetings with BASF and the investigators it funds keep projects on target and push the science forward, he said.
“We can quickly approve a project without worrying about intellectual property arrangements. It’s covered in the framework agreement,” Yang said. Normally, industry and universities need about nine months to set up a cooperative research project, including negotiations over intellectual property, he noted.
Peter Schuhmacher, president of BASF’s process research and chemical engineering platform, likes the framework agreement—with its standard terms and intellectual property arrangements—as much as Yang does. “Our researchers should focus on science and not bureaucracy,” Schuhmacher told C&EN.
The future of innovation is in interdisciplinary research, Schuhmacher said. He said he’s especially fond of CARA because of the variety of research disciplines that BASF can access.
Michael Pcolinski, vice president of advanced materials and systems research for BASF, said the firm respects university researchers. “We don’t use our academic partners for contract research, but for their creative input,” he said.
Felek Jachimowicz, formerly R&D head of W.R. Grace’s construction products business, noted that only a few “supergiants” like BASF and DowDuPont have the wherewithal to conduct research with academic partners on such a broad scale.
Jachimowicz, who now consults on research with small and midsize chemical companies, said smaller firms don’t have the resources to tap research on a wide variety of topics under a framework agreement. Their focus is often on a specific problem, making a one-time, short-term research agreement with an academic partner more appropriate and cost effective, he said.
An alternate approach for smaller firms, Jachimowicz said, is to participate in a research consortium at an academic institution. One example is the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It focuses on energy-efficient manufacturing of composite materials for vehicles and wind turbines and has many corporate members.
BASF has essentially established a research consortium of its own through CARA. UC Berkeley’s Clark pointed out that the university is good at answering fundamental questions but said it’s up to BASF to bridge the gap between new knowledge and new products.
“BASF has a great eye to develop products that are useful for society. We don’t do that as well,” Clark said. “As a result, we are a very good match for providing research that can be transferred to the marketplace.”