Skip to content
Industry on Campus

Catalysis Research Laboratory: A Partnership between Heidelberg University and BASF

Written interview with Dr. Thomas Schaub, BASF, Head of the Catalysis Research Laboratory (CaRLa), 23 July 2021. Insights into collaboration between research and industry.

INTERVIEW WITH CATALYSIS RESEARCH LABORATORY (CARLA)

What was the key motivation from BASF to initiate CaRLa together with the University of Heidelberg?

The key motivation was to tackle long term industrially relevant challenges in the field of homogeneous catalysis, where a strong academic input in basic research to enable completely new approaches is required. “Classical” collaborations are designed in such a way that research is performed in the laboratories of the academic partner and funded by BASF. Exchange usually occurs only a couple of times. And we worked with different collaboration partners from project to project, With CaRLa, we wanted to go for something new. This joint lab was initiated to facilitate a deep exchange and interaction in the projects together with our collaboration partner. The intention of this setting was to go fast on new projects with the established common expertise in this field.

quote ikon

This joint lab was initiated to facilitate a deep exchange and interaction in the projects… The intention of this setting was to go fast on new projects

What are the main principles of the collaboration model between BASF and the University Heidelberg in the context of CaRLa? (e.g., in relation to IPR and financing)

The collaboration model is based on mutual trust, and permanent exchange between both partners. This means that BASF is represented in the joint lab on the campus by the lab head from BASF (Thomas Schaub), who is also one of the scientific heads. A high input from the industrial side is secured by the close incorporation of other BASF-experts in all the different running projects. To secure the academic input, the other scientific head of CaRLa is from the university (Prof. A. Stephen K. Hashmi). In addition, the PostDocs are employees of the university and we´re located on the campus in Heidelberg to allow a good interaction with the university. As a real joint lab, it is financed by both collaboration partners. All IP generated thus far is shared between BASF and the university of Heidelberg. BASF is the party who could commercialize this shared IP. In case of success, the university will also receive its share of the commercial value of the corresponding IP. This is all aligned within the general CaRLa-collaboration contract and does not have to be renegotiated for each individual project. This speeds up the start of new projects between the two parties significantly.

quote ikon

All IP rights generated thus far is shared between BASF and the University of Heidelberg. BASF is the party who would commercialize this shared IP

CaRLa

Photocredit: Picture from the CaRLa Lab, Dr. Thomas Schaub and colleagues in action (Source)

What would you say is the key impact of CaRLa? In other words, what would you highlight as your biggest success?

The CaRLa has been running since 2006 and we have a very good track record. Within the last 6 years, we transferred 14 projects that were started at the CaRLa to the central research of BASF for further process/product development. We filed 33 joint patent applications. From a BASF perspective, this is very successful and pushes us forward in the field of homogeneous catalysis, especially in developing novel, new approaches. We have published 96 papers in peer-reviewed journals, showing that our research is also of academic interest. Many of our former PostDocs went to industry after their time at CaRLa - to BASF and also to other companies. In CaRLa, they got a first insight into how to run industrially driven projects, which is good precondition to successfully apply to a job in the chemical industry.

 

What part of the collaboration is particularly challenging, and how do you overcome this challenge?

The biggest challenge is to identify the right projects for such a setting. From a BASF perspective, our interest is in generating sufficiently interesting results to justify continuing the projects in the central research of the company and in generating IP. For the academic partner and the PostDocs, it´s important to work on projects, that are of high academic interest and to publish their results in renowned journals. Therefore, not every project idea is suitable for this setting. We usually start projects that are of high academic interest, requiring a deep mechanistic understanding to enable rational catalyst design, that are of long-term interest for BASF and directly involve relevant BASF research groups of interest. Out of the focus are short term projects, custom synthesis, upscale or pure screening projects. But at the end of the day, it´s a case-to-case decision between the two scientific heads which projects we are pursuing.

quote ikon

We usually start projects that are of high academic interest, requiring a deep mechanistic understanding

How do you evaluate the long-term success of CaRLa?

The lab has now existed since 2006 and we intend to further continue this collaboration. For me, the track record regarding successful projects, publication outcome and an excellent education of the PostDocs for industrial positions is already a long-term success.

 

Heidelberg University

Photocredit: Heidelberg University - Communications and Marketing

 

Based on your experiences, what would be your main piece of advice to Danish universities and companies that wish to establish an “industry on campus” / “under one roof” collaboration?

Both partners must be well aware of the needs of the other party. It is also very important for such a close and long-term ”under one roof” collaboration that it is in a field with a sufficient high interest for the industrial partner, as it binds a lot of resources. You need a large group of focused projects to generate the necessary critical mass and to justify continuous funding. For example, homogeneous catalysis is an important technology in BASF and we produce several million tons of products each year using it. So, there are enough steady needs from BASF in this field to be addressed at CaRLa. Founding such a joint lab in a field where a company does not have a long-term strategic interest is not recommended. In this case it would be better to go for classical collaborations.

quote ikon

It is also very important … it is in a field with sufficient high interest for the industrial partner, as it binds a lot of resources