The Institute for Nanomaterials, Advanced Technologies and Innovations (CXI) was established at the Technical University of Liberec as a local research and development center in the Liberec Region almost 10 years ago. There are plenty of opportunities and CXI fulfills the demand for research and development both from smaller companies and traditional large companies. The Institute assists them with research, development and innovation in Material Research, Engineering and Software Applications. The new director of CXI prof. Miroslav Černík leads CXI since January 2021. According to him, CXI's advantage is being part of the university and our students, especially doctoral students, are also involved in professional teams. Unlike industrial companies, CXI teams have the opportunity to devote time to projects that may not have an immediate financial effect and theirs results are reflected at a later date or in other applications.
How did the idea to establish the Institute come about?
The Technical University of Liberec was interested in establishing a top research and development center, which is why the project was submitted to the RDI Operational Program. This created a condition for the establishment of a university institute, which will have submitted and implemented the project.
When and how exactly did CXI originate?
It was a decision of the TUL Academic Senate in 2009. The institute was founded at one of its meetings and there was, I might say, a bit of commotion. Nevertheless, we built our building in 2011 and have been working here ever since. This year it will celebrate 10 years.
What does CXI do? Which "services" are the most often provided by our departments?
We are engaged in research and development and provide services to the academic, public and private sectors. We deal both with material research, which was one of the first directions in the establishment of the Institute and grew the most in terms of number of people and research projects, and competitive engineering. The latter includes the following applied areas: engineering, mechatronics, technology and robotics. In addition to these two directions, we established a third one at the Institute, called System Integration, which includes mainly IT services and solutions. This direction is new in our portfolio, but it has already established its clientele. What kind of importance in the volume of activities of the entire CXI will it gain remains to be seen.
Who are CXI customers?
Joint project make up 60% of revenues. Contract research and ancillary activities amount to 20%. In general, our customers are Czech industrial companies working in the areas of research in which we operate. Each department has its partners and customers who return repeatedly. For example, 3D printing generates a large number of orders, but these are smaller orders, typically for the production of various prototypes. In comparison, the software architecture department addresses fewer customers but facilitates longer-term solutions typically for industrial companies such as Trask or Škoda Auto. Lukáš Dvořák's Department of Environmental Technology has its regular customers in the area water treatment, who regularly demand our services. My goal for the department is to draw on both if possible, to devote itself to contract research to a varying degrees, but also to projects. We must not forget the involvement of students and doctoral students who help in creating outputs such as professional articles. To be secured from multiple sources, just like in life.
Who is our competition and who are our partners?
There are about 50 research centers such as CXI in our country. We were established as a local center. What does it mean? We focus on the Liberec region, the Czech Republic, even Europe. However we, just like Liberec or the corresponding region, are simply too small on a global scale. In general, services from our competitive engineering tend to be used locally and in the wider region. There are plenty of opportunities and we seize these both in smaller companies as well as in traditional large companies. As far as materials research is concerned, we also focus on "local" water remediation, for example, but our partners are from all over the country. Of course, there is competition, but we are tied to our regular customers, with whom we work for a long time. At the same time, we are pleased that we are being approached by new, start-up companies that want to cooperate and we are happy to support them.
How does CXI compare to other similarly focused centers?
In the survey of center comparisons three years ago, we have reached 3rd or 4th place in the amount of money we secure from contract research. Former rector prof. Kůs can confirm, that whenever there are talks of centers in the Czech Republic, CXI is mentioned as one of the successful projects that emerged from the OP RDI call. We did not need any subsidy or grant from the parent university throughout our 10 year existence. We walk our own path. Successfully. It is not an isolated journey though, we are trying to work together across the university and perhaps our results will soon enhance its reputation.
Why is CXI (as an Institute) successful? In which areas?
The success lies in us being one team. There are people in good mood and there is a good environment. People feel satisfied, they want to work here and cooperate. In the first decade, the Institute was led by an excellent director, who deserves our thanks :) I think people work here with interest. People must also be rewarded for their work though, then they work with diligence. When they are satisfied, then of course it comes back to the functioning of the whole organization.
How many projects do you investigate per year and what is their value?
We investigated 85 ongoing projects in 2019 of which 5 operated with international participation and 6 were purely international. Projects are usually conceived for a period of 3 years. As an example, I can mention my international project LIFEPOPWAT, in which we are the project investigator of EU LIFE program. This project of ours began last year and will be going on another 2 years. We are building a wetland in cooperation with the state enterprise DIAMO, the company PWT and the company Dekonta in Hájek near Karlovy Vary. Our other exceptional projects include ANTeTUL (Modular platform for autonomous chassis of specialized electric vehicles for the transport of goods and equipment) and HyHi (Hybrid materials for hierarchical structures).
Which of the 3 research directions do companies employ the most for their development?
It is not possible to say in this sense. Some departments are larger and simply need to be more active. E.g. Alena Ševců or Lukáš Dvořák have a lot of people in their teams, they submit a lot of projects and invest a lot of effort to "operate" not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad. On the contrary, Professor Kopecký and his staff have a small laboratory with a specific focus, work very well, and are financially self-sufficient. The department under Jindřich Cýrus deals with software architecture and they have only a minimum of projects, because they have long-term contracts with strategic customers, on which they primarily focus.
Which companies cooperate with the CXI?
Our departments cooperate with large market players, such as ŠKODA AUTO, Nanoprogress Cluster, TRASK Solutions, EPS or DEKONTA. We are pleased that our services are also used by start-up companies, such as Photon Water Technology or GoodMask. We have a number of projects with other R&D institutions such as Membrain or ÚJV Řež or The Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic Institutes - for example, the Jaroslav Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry or the Institute of Experimental Medicine. Together we are part of nanoenvi.cz, which is a research infrastructure facilitating cooperation on joint projects.
Could you describe this kind of contracts or projects?
We test engines and gearboxes for Škoda Auto, and we also supply software solutions for their development. As a university, we are a member of the Nanoprogress Cluster and we have joint long-term projects. We cooperate with ÚJV Řež on contracts for SÚRAO, which build nuclear waste repositories. We are concerned, for example, with experiments on the corrosion of packaging sets in which the spent fuel will be stored. This task is being solved by Alena Ševců's department. The former director doc. Tůma also works a great number of contracts. These encompass the development of various boxes, which are connected to production lines and inform workers about the performed operations on touch screens.
What makes the development at the CXI different from a regular company?
The difference lies in us being part of the university. There are doctoral students whom we train bringing many advantages. These are young professionals who often work on contracts for industry. Due to this fact they deal with issues and topics they would not come into contact with whatsoever in basic research at faculties. They get to solve real problems with the commercial domain and have to learn to deal with customers, which is an experience important to their professional lives. Compared to a regular company, our advantage is that time is not so carefully watched. When a company comes up with an idea we see as progressive or interesting, our people start to focus on it. They invest more time, although it may be a low paid contract at the given moment. However, everyone is aware that this will create a quality professional article, result in further cooperation or such results will be used further. We have also set up cooperation with abroad. This is an informal foreign cooperation at a professional level (the result is usually an article) but it is not supported by any finances at all. Of course, we try different calls in which we submit our projects, but the chances of success are often lower for international projects than for national ones (often only in low single digit %). We have a certain advantage, in comparison to companies, since we have time to focus on projects that may not have an immediate financial effect.
In 2020, CXI received a prestigious award from the European Commission. What is it about?
CXI received the HR Award certificate within the HR Excellence in Research award for the area of personnel policy. This means the Institute for Nanomaterials, Advanced Technologies and Innovation guarantees excellence in the area of working conditions, especially for researchers. The certificate is awarded by the European Commission individually and means that we meet, for example, equal working and salary conditions for women and men, we have transparent selection procedures, as an employer we give the opportunity to reconcile work with family life and several dozen other criteria. This award is important because it has its weight in the international scientific community and will help us in recruiting qualified researchers from abroad. The award is just the beginning. We have a lot of work ahead of us on the overall development of HR and employee evaluations are next.
How many employees does CXI have?
We have just over 200 staff, of that 170 researchers and about 30-35 administrative staff. We can boast a very good balance because there are 47% of women working here. There are 30% of women working solely in research. We have presently 24 foreigners, which is not bad, but when there are for instance 35 of them, I wouldn't be "angry" :) I see personally how the presence of colleagues from abroad brings natural competition and motivation to our researchers, their work, and also develops their language skills. Foreigners who come here to work or study have more free time, do not have so many hobbies, and are here to prove something, gain reputation and a good entry in their resume. They really try and force our employees to match them. We rely on the HR Award to help us attract more quality researchers from abroad.
How does the current situation compares in the Czech environment to that of Europe or the USA?
I will describe the situation in Europe on the example of the Fraunhofer network, with which we have established partnerships. In Germany, research institutions receive 30% of their budget as a stabilization component, receive money for investments, and also look for other resources themselves. In comparison, we receive 10% and we have to "find" the remaining 90% ourselves. If this ratio was better, we would have room to do more basic research or go deeper, not be tied to projects and we could go "for quality". Considering situation in the USA it is similar to ours. For example, professors have a salary for only 9 months and they still have to raise funds. On the other hand it is easier to raise funds for equipment in research organizations in the West than in our country. The situation in our country depends entirely and only on the decision of the government. Whether they realize there have been 50 research centers built in the Czech Republic, and they are no longer interested in their support, or on the contrary they decide to invest some money, for example for the renewal of equipment. We don't want money for operations, but we need an investment in equipment. I remember, when we went abroad in the past (before CXI was formed), we felt like poor relatives. This trend reversed with the emergence of the CXI supported by the OP RDI. When we talked with colleagues from abroad about the equipment we have they were often surprised. That was almost ten years ago and now the card is turning back.
What is CXI currently focusing on? Do you register a decline in projects or orders due to the crisis?
We had a successful last year thanks to the projects we started. We recorded one of the best years in the existence of CXI considering contract research. It hasn't gotten much worse this year, but I don't want to make predictions. We will see the kind of project challenges this year will bring. When TAČR launched the Trend call last year, its original budget was significantly increased by an unplanned 2 billion Czech crowns. We acquired 5 more projects for our research, which is a significant difference.
How do you imagine the near future of CXI?
In my opinion, the development of CXI has the following priorities: stabilization, preferential research directions and international cooperation. Right now we need to stabilize CXI. Last year, Petr Tůma began introducing certain inner changes which, according to our internal survey, have been quite positively received by the staff. We have some reserves in communication and we want to remedy them. I see the future of CXI in stability, in people who enjoy their work, in a good and relaxed atmosphere and equal conditions, which we have to work on constantly. Furthermore, we would like to define the directions of CXI research, which we have been talking about a lot in the last year. We need to have preferential "labels" for which CXI will be known and will build its brand. I also want CXI to have a greater share of international cooperation. We are currently investigating about 5% of international projects, which is a good start. If we manage to double that number, we will gain on reputation and we will be in a better position to accept foreign doctoral students and researchers. Of course none of us knows the situation for the upcoming 2 years, what the funding for science and research will be like. We will see the situation of the next year according to this year's project calls. I believe we will continue to prosper.