From research and transfer to sustainable transformation


Prof. Dr. Jens Schneider

Technical University of Darmstadt 

Dear Prof. Schneider, you are a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt and its vice president for transfer and internationalization. What exactly do you mean by transfer?

We in the Presidium deliberately chose the structure of this department because we believe that the activities that a university traditionally understood under transfer and our international activities belong together. I like to refer to my department as the foreign ministry of the university. In addition to the classic core tasks of teaching and research, we are increasingly looking at the third pillar, also known as the "third mission". In our strategy we overwrite it with "XChange", i.e. "exchange". By this we do not mean the one-sided transmission of our knowledge, our insights and our developments into society, be it business, politics or culture, but also the return flow of challenges, thoughts and impulses to us. The demands of society, in turn, influence our view of research topics. This is where I also see the special importance of the Science and Technology Park in Gernsheim: it offers the possibility of a real exchange of knowledge, expertise, technologies, applications and enables future innovations. The TU Darmstadt has a special ability to bridge the gap between teaching and research and the "XChange" with our partners from society, business, culture and politics. But this bridge must not be a one-way street, it must be passable in both directions. In business, you would call it the customer perspective, which is becoming increasingly important for universities. Merck is one of our most important strategic partners here, with whom we have enjoyed a long and successful partnership. 

What are your expectations of the bi-directional exchange with your partners and what flows back to the university?

Together with our partners at home and abroad, we want to conduct research in a larger area or subject area and develop something new together. Here, too, the idea of the Fluxum S&T Park is extremely interesting, because as a university we cannot independently scale some of the ideas that we have developed in the laboratories and research facilities to an industrial scale. And that also applies to our start-ups that spring from the university. We depend on support when we want to try out developments that work on a laboratory scale under industrial conditions. With this "upscaling" we see new effects on a different scale. We know that these effects in turn have an impact on our basic research at the TU. my experience is that this reflux often arises from practical problems. Ultimately, we expect from such cooperation activities that knowledge will be mutually beneficial and that innovation cycles will become faster and thus more efficient through this exchange. 

How important are networks and especially start-ups in this context?

At the TU Darmstadt, we summarize our overall strategy under the motto "Advancing Science for Transformative Solutions". But only that which arrives in the economy and society and changes things can have a transformative effect. When it comes to climate change, for example, it is immediately clear that we have to act quickly and apply research results immediately. That is why we at the TU Darmstadt are very interested in trying out research results in application in many areas and thus bringing new impetus to basic research. 

The intensification of networks that support startups makes a lot of sense, especially in engineering and natural sciences.

Today, especially at a technical university, start-ups are much more important in this ecosystem and its environment. It is precisely they who can make this transformation possible, namely by putting ideas into practice. But start-ups also need a suitable infrastructure in order to be able to operate at all. In the tech and deep tech sector, it's not just computers and office chairs. This is particularly about test and also a small production infrastructure. Start-ups are often still based here at TU Darmstadt in their early phase, but as soon as they become larger and grown-ups, they are often bought up by established companies in order to enable their further growth. In this situation, the question is whether they can maintain their innovative strength because they are often swallowed up too early by large company structures. The Fluxum Park offers great opportunities for grown-ups, for whom it is intended and for which it offers infrastructure and thus freedom without being merged into a large company. Many founders have a very strong desire for independence and self-determination, and for good reason.

Does the idea of intensifying cooperation in the form of regional alliances with other universities play a role for you?

On the one hand, there is the alliance of the Rhine-Main Universities in Frankfurt, Mainz and Darmstadt (RMU), which will continue to gain in importance. We have a lot in common with JGU Mainz, which is a natural partner for us and with whom we really enjoy working together. Among other things, we both work on developing a strong European university network that forms the international context. We have been conducting intensive cooperative research with the University of Frankfurt for many years and have also developed a joint course in medical technology. There is intensive cooperation with the Fraunhofer institutes in the fields of IT, digitization, materials research and reliability. We are currently working on the establishment of a new cooperation on energy systems. It is more and more common that in the case of complex problem areas, larger consortia are brought together, which then work on interdisciplinary solutions. The cooperation of different universities as institutions in consortia, also with non-university research and the economy is becoming more and more important. Consortia are also becoming increasingly important in the university environment. Our naturally defined, regional focus in Frankfurt-Rhine-Main is due on the one hand to geographical proximity, on the other hand it builds on existing cooperation between the faculties and researchers, from engineering to natural sciences to the humanities and social sciences, for example from our physics department to JGU Mainz and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz. The Rhine isn´t a border for us. 

How important would the Fluxum S&T Park be for TU Darmstadt?

We still have a lot planned at TU Darmstadt. In particular, the Lichtwiese campus and the area at Griesheim Airport still offer us good development opportunities. However, pronounced technological infrastructures, also due to their building or licensing requirements, are an opportunity for Fluxum in Gernsheim. There is already a designated chemical and industrial site here, while our Lichtwiese university campus is also used by local residents for local recreation, for example. That is why we have always successfully integrated the buildings of our learning factories and large-scale facilities into the campus, both structurally and aesthetically. There are still opportunities here, but there are also limits. Things can be realized in Gernsheim that are not possible at our previous locations, especially since the location also offers a lot of space.The Fluxum location in Gernsheim will of course become more attractive as a result of being upgraded to a Science & Technology Park, but it remains more of an industrial area in terms of character. 

Let's talk about sustainability and the importance you attach to the topic of Greentech. How do you see its importance as a basic theme of the Fluxum S&T Park Gernsheim?

The entire field of sustainability, circular economy and green tech will gain enormous momentum. I believe that climate change is becoming more and more noticeable and that the problems arising from it will become more acute. My personal assessment is that the question of how we can counteract climate change, but also how we can live with it, will increasingly come to the fore. The pressure emanating from this area will not increase linearly but exponentially. This is not just limited to the issues of energy supply, but includes all natural resources. In addition to technologies in the field of energy, resource-saving technologies for the use of materials and water, for example, must also be further developed. In doing so, we will have to go down paths that were perhaps discarded twenty years ago, because they seemed too expensive. In the construction industry, for example, many designs are still not oriented enough towards resource-saving construction methods, since the use of materials and energy is not evaluated over the entire life cycle. A different view of resource efficiency will have to establish itself here in the future. The resources that are used must be used at a later point in their life cycle, but they must also be fed back into the material cycle. All topics that are grouped around the topic of resources are fundamentally profitable. We finally have to approach the topics of energy, material and also water with a different awareness. A current example is the discussion about scarce construction timber due to the demand from the USA and China, but inorganic materials such as concrete and glass are also affected by the scarcity of resources. There is already a shortage of suitable sands for glass production. It used to be said: "There's sand like sand on the sea". That's not the case anymore. At the same time, cement production currently requires a very high use of energy, and the possibilities of CO2 sequestering are not used enough. The current way of building cities can no longer be extrapolated to the next hundred years simply because the natural resources will soon be lacking. These facts show us the way to important fields of activity. The generations that will come after us is going to have massive problems if we continue as before. 

Thank you, Prof. Schneider. Then I hope that we will soon be working together on and in Gernsheim.

The interview was conducted by Dietmar Möller.