Collaboration on Campus

 The Technical University of Munich cooperates more closely with the corporate sector than any other German university. While the students benefit from hands-on training, companies get ideas for innovative products and new technologies.

September, 2018

In August last year, the American entrepreneur Elon Musk caused a flurry of excitement when he posted a video on Twitter. The 26-second clip makes the viewer feel quite dizzy: as the camera moves faster and faster along a neon-lit tunnel, the lights flicker wildly, until the ride suddenly ends. The camera was attached to a maglev train (a “Hyperloop” in technical jargon), powered by an electric motor. The capsule reached up to 324km/h – a record for a Hyperloop capsule. The prototype, which was developed by students of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), will help to revolutionize travel: one day these capsules could carry people to their destinations at speeds of around 1,200km/h.

The sky’s the limit for the students of TUM, who aspire to solve the problems facing humanity by developing the key technologies of the future. In order to prepare students for the challenges ahead, the TUM cooperates with a large number of companies, many of which come from overseas. “Such cooperation offers advantages for both sides,” says Thomas Hofmann, Vice President of Research and Innovation at TUM, who coordinates several joint ventures between German and foreign companies.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk congratulates the winning team of the Hyperloop Pod Competition II at SpaceX’s Hyperloop track in Hawthorne, California. The student team “WARR” from Munich’s Technical University won the contest with a peak speed of 324km/h. © picture alliance/AP Photo

The synergistic relationship that exists between industry and many of the top scientific universities in Germany is one of the reasons why it is an excellent international research location. The TUM follows two different models for collaboration – “Contracts for Work and Services” and “Research and Development Agreements.” With the former, companies pay an upfront fee for a clear university assignment, then the students measure or test components, collect data and evaluate it. With the R&D agreements (more common), the university and its partners mutually agree on the research topic and the timetable for delivery, with the option of renewal. The university typically provides the laboratories, where the students either work alone or in concert with company employees. In both cases, the university ensures the results are not compromised, i.e. companies cannot specify fixed goals or influence the outcome.

What’s the big idea?

Innovating together

In Germany, cooperation between universities and companies is widespread. “Not only do large companies work together with universities, but also SMEs,” says Mathias Winde from Stifterverband, a unique organisation with over 3,000 members which brings companies of all sizes together with foundations, donors and private individuals, to drive improvements in the fields of education, science and innovation. For example, since 2009, the Technical University of Darmstadt in Hesse has been working closely with the railway operator Deutsche Bahn on IT security and environmental protection within largescale construction projects. The University of Cologne also cooperates with several companies such as the international pharmaceuticals company Bayer Healthcare.

A win-win partnership

Through this kind of cooperation, the university can offer its students hands-on training and real-world experience. The corporate partners in turn benefit from ideas for new business opportunities and new and improved products. Furthermore, connections are made with talented students who could later graduate to become valuable employees.

The US giant General Electric (GE) is one of TUM’s biggest partners. Since 2004, students have been working with GE on a project to design and build more efficient gas turbines for use in aircraft, in the pumping stations of oil and gas pipelines, or to drive battle tanks. In 2016, TUM opened a new laboratory with GE on campus and the costs (€15m) were shared between the company, the university and the state of Bavaria. For GE, the financial outlay has already paid off: TUM has developed a 1,300hp (horse power) engine for the company that consumes 20 per cent less fuel than older models. This engine will soon become the standard for small business aircraft including, for example, the Cessna Denali made by U.S. manufacturer Textron.

Through years of successful collaboration with the corporate sector, the university has developed professional standards and business models to make the contracting process easier. The university’s main concern is to secure its rights: students must be able to write about their work and publish the result, perhaps in the form of a doctorate. From the companies’ perspective, they must gauge in advance which areas are suitable for collaboration and sharing (for example, where trade secrets are involved, the university may not be the right partner). Cooperations work best where companies want to explore and open up new business areas. “It’s important for the TUM to work with its partners on an equal footing,” Hofmann points out. The principles of the university are published on its website for the benefit of potential partners.

“Elon Musk congratulated me: that was my highlight.”

While studying mechanical engineering at TUM, Manfred Schwarz and his fellow students developed a Hyperloop capsule for the U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Mr. Schwarz, how did you get to work with Elon Musk?

Musk organized a competition to build a working Hyperloop prototype. More than 1,000 teams entered worldwide but we presented the most persuasive concept and won the competition.

How long have you been working on the capsule?

About a year. We developed and tested the individual parts in Munich. However, we didn’t know if they would work together because we didn’t have a test tube, so we sent the parts to the U.S. and assembled them there. During the test run, the capsule accelerated to a speed of 324km/h, more than any capsule before. Only then did we know that one year’s work has paid off. Elon Musk was standing next to us as our capsule set the speed record.

How did that moment feel?

Outstanding. Musk congratulated us all and shook hands with us. That was my personal highlight.

Photo: WARR Hyperloop