This article is based on the interview with Monalisa, which was originally taken as a part of an investigation exercise and the collection of case studies within the scope of Spanning Boundaries Project. Monalisa’s main boundary spanning activity is promoting and renting lab facilities at universities as well as providing scientific experimentation and analysis services at her company Spark 904. She actively works with the different levels of stakeholders, both at universities and business organisations.

 With an academic training and PhD in chemistry, Monalisa Goswami is a true academic entrepreneur who founded a research-intensive business as a spin-off from University of Amsterdam. After spending most of her academic life in labs, she shifted her focus towards making better use of university infrastructure by enabling open access to external stakeholders such as companies, other institutes or independent researchers, with her start-up Spark904.

What motivated Monalisa and Spark904?

During her doctorate studies, Monalisa witnessed a large number of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the chemical research and development (R&D) sector, whose innovation capacity was limited because of lack of adequate infrastructure and equipment. Let alone the price for such equipment – smaller R&D companies are not able to afford such luxury.

Universities, on the other hand, are well-equipped with resources and expertise, but have locations sitting idle at times, thus not fully utilised. Originally coming from India, where the resources at universities are more limited, Monalisa saw the availability of equipment and infrastructure at Dutch universities as a privilege that should be shared with those without access or/and finances.

Yet, where is the starting point? Given the differences between academia and industry in terms of the working styles, research goals, timelines, and the level of commitment, Monalisa recognised the challenge and set the vision to become the bridge for these two parties. So in 2017, Spark904 was born.

Fast forward three years, Spark904 offers a range of services for chemical R&D companies, primarily connecting them with scientists and infrastructure in Amsterdam Science Park, providing analytical instruments and chemical analysis and spectroscopy services. Spark904 caters to pharma and life sciences, the polymer industry, and runs projects in circularity and waste valorisation.

What are the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to become a successful Spanning Boundaries agent?

Understanding both academia and the business world is essential. As a chemist from university environment, Monalisa knows how chemistry labs work and the way scientists and universities function. Her intensive business training at a start-up bootcamp provided by a university incubator was also pivotal for her, both for starting her business and for understanding the ‘business-mind’.

Boundary spanning is all about tolerance that accommodates other people’s needs, biases and fears. Although university-industry collaboration is promoted at universities, academics are still often sceptical when an outsider with different motives approaches them. Thus, it is important for a Spanning Boundaries agent to be aware of these mentalities and to be able to convince academics about the importance of such engagement.

Also, given the different expectations of academics and companies; transversal skills and the management of both stakeholders and expectations are very important assets that Spanning boundaries agents should have.

What drives the collaboration?

Firstly, if the Spanning Boundaries activity addresses a real problem, it finds its own momentum on both sides. Key point here is communicating this problem well to the right stakeholders. Secondly, proximity is important between companies and the university especially regarding the use of shared facilities.

What are the success factors?

Showing and promoting the examples of success is very important. Commonly, most academics and professionals at universities are followers, and only few are leaders. Successful examples and role models give confidence to people to take actions. Thus, it is very important to make the first successful attempt and then let it be known by others.

Monalisa believes that, in the end, being a good Spanning Boundaries agent comes down to personality. Unlike most of her colleagues in academia, she is rather extroverted and comfortable with being in the spotlight: giving presentations and approaching people she does not know. However, it is still a skill – networking can and should be learned!

Learn more about Monalisa and Spark904:

Interviewed by: Elif Celik, Business Developer at UIIN; Edited by: Alexandra Zinovyeva, Manager EU Projects at UIIN