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We cannot afford to keep academia and industry separate

Corinne Scown, Head of Sustainability at the Energy & Biosciences Institute | March 17, 2018

In 2007, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab signed a $500 million agreement with BP to form the Energy Biosciences Institute. Protests ensued, with accusations that the university was selling out to big oil. Needless to say, many people were, and are, not fans of universities partnering with private companies, whether that means those companies directly funding our work or joining with us in grant proposals to public-sector funders. However, unless we join forces with industry, everyone loses — we miss opportunities to exchange ideas that could accelerate the transition of technologies from the lab to the marketplace. We do not need to agree on everything to form meaningful and productive partnerships, but the pressing environmental challenges we face require an “all hands on deck” approach.

miscanthusWhen I came to Berkeley as a graduate student in 2007, the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) were both awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and BP, respectively. I had always been interested in energy solutions for the transportation sector, and eagerly joined the EBI with the goal of understanding and ultimately reducing the environmental footprint of biofuel production. We coalesced around perennial grasses, particularly one called Miscanthus, as an attractive feedstock. It was high-yielding, required very little fertilizer and could actually sequester carbon into the soil over time. We worked on different strategies for breaking biomass down into fermentable sugars and lignin, and converting those intermediates into fuel. Later on, we branched out to work on other feedstocks, such as energycane – including sugarcane bred for high biomass yield and crosses between sugarcane and high-yielding grasses. We also expanded our work to explore replacements for petroleum-derived chemicals, such as lubricants, which are critical if we are to enable a thriving bioeconomy.

All the while, I had to be exceptionally careful — as someone who quantifies the net life-cycle emissions and potential future cost of producing biofuels and bioproducts, the value of my research is inextricably tied to my commitment to accuracy and transparency. Never did I feel as though my results were influenced by the desires of my funders. The EBI provided a wonderful community of researchers, all tackling different pieces of the same grand challenge. By organizing around a big interdisciplinary problem, my colleagues and I were able to build a broad network of collaborators across many different colleges and departments, and I still draw on that network nearly everyday. Our BP colleagues, many of whom worked in our building, were excellent collaborators and offered enthusiasm for basic research paired with a keen awareness of the practical challenges biofuels and bioproducts would face during scale-up. Some of my most productive years in the EBI were the ones during which I worked most closely with researchers in BP.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. It was tough but, in hindsight, not altogether surprising. BP was facing billions of dollars in fines, along with a greater than 50 percent drop in oil prices, and was also laying off many of its own employees. The company had previously announced multiple shifts in priorities within EBI that resulted in big changes to the research portfolio. Companies must act in the best interests of their shareholders, and this means being agile and responsive to the changing energy landscape, and expectations for what the future holds. However, the pace at which individual companies change tack can be problematic for academic institutions. We bring in graduate students and multi-year postdocs who need to build their own body of work and deep knowledge in their field of choice. In reality, they need more stability than a single company can necessarily provide. So, where should we go from here? Was this grand partnership a failed experiment?

Most people probably assume that the EBI no longer exists, but it is in fact alive and growing. Less than a year ago, Shell signed a $25 million agreement to become the institute’s first new sponsor. As we embark on this new chapter, there are a few lessons from our past experience that we are putting into practice.

1) Relying on a single company can be risky. Bringing together a consortium of industry partners with similar goals is one way to provide more continuity and pool sufficient resources to support a multi-principal investigator, “team science” approach.

2) Instead of focusing on a single technology, we are taking a portfolio approach to transforming and decarbonizing energy systems. There is no silver-bullet solution to reducing our reliance on fossil energy, and some technologies will be more important in the short-term while others will be more prevalent in the long term. Our research strategy must reflect that reality.

3) Having a big impact requires that we provide a springboard for new entrepreneurs. The path from the lab to the market can be perilous, and energy technology startups are often operating on a shoestring budget. As we have learned from Cyclotron Road, the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit, and numerous other startup incubators across the UC Berkeley campus and broader Bay Area, providing these fledgling companies with access to equipment and expert collaborators can make all the difference, and EBI is committed to helping impactful startups grow.

The truth is that we are all still learning about how best to form research partnerships between academia, national laboratories and private industry that serve the public good. There are plenty of debate about how much the U.S. should be investing in research and development, and who should be paying for it. What is clear is that we have to keep working together if we want to make a big impact. In their September 2000 article, “Working for mutual benefit,” Jachimowicz and Umali explain: “Working with the academic community exposes industrial researchers to the most advanced technical thinking, new research trends, and novel experimental techniques. Dialogues with academic scientists also provide a way to test the validity of our own thinking and directions. We gain discussion partners who challenge our beliefs and conclusions.” I look forward to both challenging my industry colleagues and learning from them.