Vis-a-vis dialogue with Robert Dwiliński, the President of Ammono
Interviewee: Robert Dwiliński
Function: President of the Management Board
Location: Warsaw University of Technology
Date: 9 November 2010
1) Central Europe Programme
KJK: Do you have any knowledge of cooperation within the Central Europe? Are you aware that there is such a region, not only as a name, but that it applies to specific lands and countries, and that the European Commission has earmarked funds to support it?
RD: I know nothing about it.
KJK: In that case, we won’t ask you additional questions regarding this topic.
RD: I understand that this is not about structural funds related to Poland's accession to the EU, but about the next step?
2) Materials Engineering Sector
KJK: Poland is the beneficiary of structural funds, generally as a region, a country that has rates below the EU average, and as such is entitled to assistance under the equalization of opportunities. There is also a special programme dedicated to Central Europe. Because our programme involves materials engineering, I would like to ask: how do you understand material engineering and how do you see it in the context of business activity?
RD: For us, material engineering constitutes 90% of our activities, and performance in this field determines whether we move forward and whether we are competitive or not. This applies on many levels.
KJK: Is material a product in your understanding? A product is a very advanced material with specific characteristics; does this mean that the whole business constitutes engineering of this material?
RD: Not only. It is a question of producing this material, meaning crystal growth. Formation of the material is one thing; two-thirds of the people employed in the company work on processing this material, that is, on its entire multi-stage treatment, ranging from cutting to chemical and mechanical polishing. These are the things that only five companies in the world are able to do at the level necessary to obtain high-quality lasers. The production of materials with certain characteristics is one issue; the second one is a number of questions related to its treatment. The primary issue, however, is the problem of the equipment necessary to obtain specific conditions for the formation of such crystals. We are able to manufacture autoclaves in which the crystals grow. We invested both our time and money in an appropriate moment in order to, together with the University of Technology for instance, select alloys and develop structures which enable autoclaves to work for many years and allow the crystals growth. The Japanese for example, whom I met two weeks ago, claim that they would grow much better crystals than we do, but they are facing problems concerning “floating” autoclaves. Their problem is cracking of the liners separating the autoclaves walls from the reaction environment. They believe that they will fully succeed once they solve the problem. We don’t have such a problem, because our autoclaves don’t “float”.
3) Supporting Innovations: cooperation between different entities (actors)
KJK: You’ve mentioned that your company’s success is largely based on good cooperation with universities, including the University of Warsaw, from where you graduated, and where you are, in a sense, working on your PhD. Therefore, my question is: how do you perceive a relation between the material-heavy industry and universities or development research centres financed from the public funds? How do you perceive the cooperation between public universities and public development research centres? What is the situation in Poland and what should it be? What is your experience?
RD: The reason why such cooperation makes sense is the fact that companies perform very comprehensive and highly specific activities. Therefore, given the results in this field, companies need a strong support based on broad knowledge and widespread research capabilities. It is very difficult for them, especially for those small and medium enterprises and start-ups, to develop such possibilities, in terms of both expertise and research equipment. Scientists working at universities have broad, although perhaps a bit shallow, knowledge of various fields. They deal with their subjects for many years and have already gathered a better or worse range of research equipment they can work with. We base our work on cooperation with universities in developing projects. The problem lies in a long-term commitment. The characteristic thing about universities is working on a number of subjects simultaneously and frequent changes of them, resulting from the competition for grants among scientists. When such a grant ends, the scientists need to think about other topics, and our cooperation breaks. The second problem lies in the lack of resources. At a certain stage of the work process, it becomes necessary to hire more people or buy more equipment, and it turns out that the university has no financial capacity to do this. This poses a natural barrier for this cooperation. Defeating it would require a greater commitment from both the university and the company.
KJK: These are interesting observations and I must say that when I look at the situation from the other side, we both notice exactly the same barrier. Are you aware that there are programmes supporting cooperation between the industry and universities?
RD: There is a possibility of creating industrial scientific consortia and special programmes for these consortia.
KJK: Do you have any experience in this field?
RD: We have already created a consortium comprising us (Ammono), the University of Warsaw, Wrocław University of Technology, and the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME). We were going to apply for the Innovative Economy (POIG) grants I believe, but these programmes do not exist anymore. The rapidly changing rules of the game constitute a problem. It is necessary to respond immediately after the announcement of a competition is made. Unfortunately, our reaction was belated. Besides, many are willing to receive additional funds, so it is not so easy to access them. Rules are changing and we must get familiar with them quickly in order to obtain resources efficiently. Such programmes pass away before they start working properly and one has to look for other possibilities.
4) Strengthening proficiency: cooperation between different regions
KJK: Do you think that there are many businesses that can somehow be compared to your own company in terms of interest in cooperation with universities? Or maybe, as you observe the economic environment, the majority of these companies believe that they will achieve high proficiency inside their businesses without cooperation with universities? Attitudes towards universities are often contemptuous. People say that academics put their works on the shelf, that they cannot be trusted, etc. To what extent is your attitude towards these issues similar to those typical of companies working on materials?
RD: I don’t have enough experience to reasonably evaluate it. It seems to me that there isn’t much urge to work with universities. People do not take regular cooperation with universities in various fields as their point of honour, at least to have access to systematic consultations. Unfortunately, there’s no feeling that it would be desirable or that it would make sense.
KJK: But you participate in a project supported by public funds as the beneficiary, and not as a member of consortium, don’t you?
RD: Yes, at the moment we have two projects of significant scale. The first one is a PARP project, at a level of around 5–6 million zlotys, and the second is a target project of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MNiSW). We are the only performers of these projects. They are based on the know-how. The means are established at the level of 1 million zlotys each and they are intended for scientific collaboration and external consultants; therefore, in some degree, there is a place for cooperation with scientific institutions. One project relates to polishing; it consists in optimizing this process in order to obtain the atomic smoothness of surfaces. What we do outside is studying these surfaces in terms of the epitaxy of their layers (ITME deals with that) and the parameters of these layers in the end (this is measured by Wrocław). Measurements are also carried out by the University of Warsaw.
KJK: What do you think about conducting research not in Warsaw or Wrocław, but for example in Bavaria or Slovakia? If there was a competence description, would it be possible to assign the research to foreign research centres?
RD: Currently, we have no restrictions in this regard. We are happy to cooperate with all entities that wish to cooperate with us. We have much collaboration with German centers, such as the Institute of Crystallography in Berlin and the Technical University of Berlin, and even Finnish ones, such as the Aalto University of Helsinki. Our cooperation with the Polish company TopGaN, the highest-level laser manufacturer, also develops very well.
KJK: If FLAME programme ended with the creation of informal cluster associating materials engineering companies whose product requires intensive research and development work, and if there were identified entities offering some expertise in this or any other issue, could that be useful?
RD: This is a difficult subject. It would be very useful, but hard to accomplish, because there are no bases of this type.
KJK: The project aims to create such bases.
KJK: We hope this will arise in the course of the project, but the project will not be able to maintain it. I also hope that if the achieved effect is useful, there will be methods to ensure service and supplies, even from fees by members who benefit from such a base by collecting information from or placing it in the base. Google supports itself somehow.
RD: They get money from sponsored links, but I wonder if research teams are willing to sponsor their links. If it is not considered in terms of being capable of performing automatic updates, it will end up like some history book, which just lies on the shelf. It will remain on several shelves, where someone will find some space for it, and the rest will be wasted. We don't want a situation where a team of competent people, whose time is precious, intensively works and creates a good base which presents the current image as of the day of its creation, after which several dozen people will look into it a few times, and then everyone will realize that this is outdated, and the whole work will be wasted. In this situation, the base won’t affect the functioning of the knowledge society in a way one would wish for.
KJK: This indeed is a key issue. This project would even lack the Set 93 directory, because this is to be placed in cyberspace, and if it disappears, it will disappear like everything in cyberspace, without any material trace; Set 93 has at least published a book. Thank you very much for the interview.