How to establish industry-led maritime research projects in the age of decarbonisation, part 1

I read this article on new fuels a few weeks back, where it is said that “to navigate [decarbonisation] successfully, we will need an unprecedented level of collaboration between fuel suppliers, OEMs, lubricant providers and owners, operators and managers.” Such an increased level of collaboration is becoming necessary for all sorts of projects related decarbonisation.

Swedish government agencies have been rapidly expanding the R&D funds available for maritime research. Decarbonisation is a clear goal in the calls for projects. They also want to see more industry involvement in research, “beyond participating in reference groups”. Preferably with co-funding. One of the main problems for us Swedes though is that many actors in the industry have not been involved in this way in academic research over time. There are (as far as I know) no PhDs employed at all among Swedish shipping companies, for example. How can actors (large or small) with little experience of research start navigating this new ocean of research and research funding? How can they start translating their practical problems into problem suitable for academic research? Can they lead research projects themselves? Also – not to forget – can they get used to the rejection rate of research funders?

We have one, quite high-profile project running in Sweden now: between Wallenius Marine, KTH and SSPA on wind-powered vessels. We also have our competence center Lighthouse, where they are working hard to achieve more research projects with involvement from across the sector. I myself have been helping a Swedish technology provider for the past year with forming a research project together with academic partners. After three rejected submissions, we finally succeeded in June in getting approval for our project. The project included two companies, two universities, and implementation would take place in three shipping companies (who were not partners in the project).

For context, I’ve been working on maritime energy efficiency research for the past 10 years. I’ve succeeded in achieving funding for myself, and for PhD students together with others. But I’ve also received a fair number of rejections. I now mainly work as a consultant at CIT Industriell Energi AB, a small research-based consultancy active in energy and decarbonisation issues for industry, governments and academia.

After an initial meeting with us, almost a year ago now, the technology provider started out quickly writing a proposal on their own. The deadline for proposal was only a day or two away. We made some quick additions. The proposal was rejected. Then they turned to us for help. How to make their idea a proper research project?

I set about working by contacting some academic researchers that I knew did good work in adjacent areas. After a few rounds of discussions and meetings, we settled for a project idea that included both technical and human factors research. The technical track would involve developing, testing and exploring new models for live performance prediction of ships in operation. The human factors track would examine how new means of predicting and semi-autonomously controlling ship propulsion in an energy efficient manner would be used by crew in practice. Each track would be run by an experienced researcher. In sum: we had a interdisciplinary research project, that was headed by industry, that would see results implemented in practice (in three shipowners in our case), and would lead to measureable (quite substantial) savings in emissions and energy use. Ticks off all the right boxes right?

Our first joint proposal (their second proposal) was indeed approved. The funders appreciated the practical aspects but were concerned that the results would only benefit the existing users of the systems sold by the technology provider.

So, we set about expanding the academic aspects of the project. We made it 6 months longer, to have more time for evaluation. But our first stage-2 proposal was rejected. The funders still thought it would mostly benefit the existing users.

In response to this, we set about thoroughly examining the state-of-the-art. We needed to show that what we developed would both be innovative and would also benefit parties other than the users of this specific system. That it would benefit these existing users, we argued, would be the very reason for the take-up of our results in other places. We included more deliverables, for example in the form of a technology-netural guideline for implementing these kinds of systems onboard vessels.

Our second stage-2 proposal was also rejected, on similar grounds as previously. Our research proposal had also slowly grown to become quite complicated. A state-of-the-art text on what really separates this machine learning technique from that other data analytics-method is hard to write in a non-technical language. But this time, along with the rejection, we were invited to a special session a couple of weeks later with other industry representatives of projects where the board could ask questions. They asked, we answered, and we were finally approved. We can now start working, almost a year after our first discussions.

One of the main reasons this process was long, in my view, is of course that while industry involvement in research sounds great on paper, the EU regulations around state aid for R&D are rather tricky to navigate. How to pick the appropriate aid category? Industrial research, one of the categories, is defined as follows:

“‘industrial research’ means the planned research or critical investigation aimed at the acquisition of new knowledge and skills for developing new products, processes or services or for bringing about a significant improvement in existing products, processes or services. It comprises the creation of components parts of complex systems, and may include the construction of prototypes in a laboratory environment or in an environment with simulated interfaces to existing systems as well as of pilot lines, when necessary for the industrial research and notably for generic technology validation;”

What is a “significant improvement” in this context? And how to show that negative distortions to product markets are avoided? How to establish research projects that are academically sound, and that forward state-of-the-art in the industry? On a more philosophical level, what kind of work is research (and what isn’t)? I’ll write another post about these issues soon.

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