Mistra REES researchers have written an article about the roles that academia play in supporting Eco-design and environmental performance of small companies.

Small businesses play an important role in developing new solutions for the sustainability challenges we now face. They are often at the centre of radical innovation. The thing is, though, that precisely because they are small, they do not always have the necessary resources. This is where academia could help. Hjelm and Lindahl at Linköping University have studied how academia can support small companies in their work with eco-design, through interviews with three companies with a history of working with Linköping University (LiU). Although they all have different products and operate in different niches, what they have in common is sustainable solutions. Let’s have a brief look at these companies: HTC Sweden, Qlean Scandinavia and Againity.

When HTC Sweden AB could not find suitable grinding equipment to renovate their customers’ concrete and stone floors in 1997, they invented their own. Later on, a method for cleaning concrete floors mechanically using only water and polishing it at the same time was developed. Together with the university, they have participated in several research projects.

Also in the business of cleaning is Qlean Scandinavia. By chance, they created extremely purified water. When this water meets dirt, it not only loosens algae and exhaust fumes, but also removes grease, oil and fingerprints. Today, it is mainly used on building exteriors and industry components. The company have invested heavily in product development, often working in close collaboration with LiU.

The third company, Againity, started more recently, and is still in a start-up phase. For this reason, they have not yet had much collaboration with academia, but one of the founders is a researcher at LiU. Againity uses the excess heat from exhaust gases to produce electricity. The technology is well-established, so their business idea focuses on the robustness and cost-efficiency of their solution.

So how does academia help these companies with eco-design? It can be through for example student projects, master’s theses, research projects, strategic collaboration agreements, or recruitments. Many student collaborations have been focused on product development, but also evaluation of markets and business opportunities. These projects have been the most memorable, and also the most accessible, since student projects are inexpensive and have little risk. The research projects have been a bit trickier but very valuable. They often lead to long-term changes, but usually require external funding. The most important role academia plays for eco-design in small businesses is as a third-party evaluator of the economic and environmental benefits of the innovations.

Last but not least, did the companies like collaborating with the university? The answer was a clear yes, as they all had a positive experience. However, from the beginning it was difficult for the businesses and academia to make contact with each other. This is something that could be improved, and one of the suggestions was to have a person working as a contact channel between industry and academia.

Small businesses have a lot to gain from finding their academic match, as can be seen in these three firms. We need the radical innovation that this type of company creates, and when it comes to eco-design, academia is an important partner for these companies to make our sustainable future happen.

Source: Hjelm, O. and M. Lindahl (2016). “Roles of Academia in Supporting Eco‐design in Small Companies for Better Environmental and Economic Performance.” Procedia CIRP 50: 745‐750.

In short – Academia small businesses eco-design true