Introducing IMEC, the pioneering research and innovation hub in nanoelectronics and digital tech based in Europe

02 July 2020

Ground-breaking innovation in healthcare, smart cities and mobility, logistics and manufacturing, energy, education as well as other domains.

Based in Leuven, Belgium, IMEC is a trusted partner for companies, start-ups and universities bringing over 4,000 brilliant minds together and encompassing nearly 100 nationalities on-site and via distributed R&D groups in Flemish and Dutch universities, in Taiwan, the USA, China, India and Japan. In 2018, IMEC's revenue totalled 583 million euros. Here, we speak to Vincent Ryckaert, Director of Intellectual Property Business and Intelligence at IMEC about collaboration and knowledge transfer. Vincent also heads up IMEC’s Licensing Group.

Hyperspectral imaging at IMEC - deciphering Da Vinci’s paintings

How did IMEC come about and what position does it occupy globally in the nanoelectronics and digital technologies innovation space?

IMEC (Interuniversitair Micro-Electronica Centrum VZW) was founded in 1984 as an autonomous and non-profit organisation by Prof. Van Overstraeten of the Catholic University of Leuven. It originates from an ambitious "SuperLab" micro-electronics research initiative started in 1982 by the Flemish government. At that time, research across different universities was very fragmented and Prof. Van Overstraeten’s vision was to create a more collaborative mindset between universities with the involvement of industries from across the globe. The goal was to pool knowledge, create diverse ecosystems and critical mass to cover every aspect of advanced technology development, thus, attracting high-tech industries to the region.

Overstraeten’s project initially included a laboratory for advanced research in microelectronics, a semiconductor foundry, and a training program for Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) design engineers. Over the last three decades this vision has grown to include more disciplines such as ICT, the environment, life sciences and healthcare, and has presence in eleven locations world-wide with Leuven as the headquarters.

What fields does IMEC research cover?

While the organisation’s core research domain is semiconductor technologies our work reaches far. Logic and memory chip scaling, artificial intelligence, image sensors and vision systems, integrated photonics, large-area electronics, life sciences, photovoltaics, connected health solutions are just some of the fields we cover. These and other areas of focus can be explored more deeply here. Examples of some of our more renowned projects and ongoing research initiatives are below. These also give a flavor of how we work.

OnePlanet: a new innovation centre to accelerate the development of innovative technology in the domains of food, agriculture and health, in which chip technology will have a crucial role.

Energyville: a collaboration to develops technology and knowledge to support public and private stakeholders in the transition to an energy efficient, decarbonised and sustainable urban environment. Activities are clustered in six interdisciplinary domains: photovoltaics, electrical and thermal storage, power control and conversion, electrical and thermal networks, buildings and districts, strategies and markets.

Antwerp Smart City: the aim of this program is to turn Antwerp into a large-scale living lab where businesses, researchers, citizens and city officials can experiment with smart technologies that make urban life more enjoyable and sustainable. Hundreds of smart sensors and wireless gateways positioned at carefully selected locations will transform the city into a live - and real-life - testbed for Internet of Things applications.

Hyperspectral imaging: from deciphering Da Vinci’s paintings to image analysis in laparoscopy, IMEC’s researcher are exploring the use of this technology across a wide range of sectors

Life sciences: IMEC is exploring the power of the chip in genomics, gene sequencing, diagnostics, neurotech and more.

What is IMEC’s invention track record and how do you leverage IP?

IMEC has a rich portfolio of patent families, of which currently over 1600 are granted or in progress. Many of these are co-owned with universities and industrial partners however IMEC also holds significant IP as know-how and trade secrets in its various domains of research.

We offer a full range of possible ways to leverage the IP through, for example, patent sale, licensing, prototyping, low-volume manufacturing and even spin-offs, but in view of the collaborative nature and spirit of IMEC, most of the IP is indirectly leveraged through programmes and joint development projects with industrial partners, universities and government funded projects.

We also have multiple models of collaboration as the creation and management of IP is a dynamic process that is of utmost importance to IMEC, itself, and its partners. In addition, IMEC actively supports the creation of spin-offs and ventures based on IMEC technologies, primarily through various initiatives like imec.iStart, imec.innovation and imec.Xpand.

These multiple operating models introduce a challenge to keep the balance of retaining autonomy for conducting research and, at the same time, being able to collaborate with a diverse range of partners with different needs and expectations. This necessitates having certain boundary conditions in place so that IP doesn’t become a blockade. This is especially crucial for the early stage research.

As collaboration has increased how has the technology transfer function evolved?

The fact that there is now a larger overlap between the various scientific domains and a wide variety of options available to use and/or commercialise innovation, means that the technology transfer role has become much more complex. Technology transfer needs to cover the entire life cycle of a particular technology, which necessitates even more open communication and feedback across multiple stakeholders.

On the one hand, key to the role is efficient documentation of IP assets, which also links the IP information to the respective collaborations and to any restrictions that might apply throughout the entire life cycle. On the other hand, our role has become more that of a mediator between the internal and external stakeholders.

On a larger scale, the awareness level about IP has improved over the past years, even for SMEs and research institutes, however, the negotiation culture needs to be further developed. Often IP is still perceived as a problem, whereas it should be perceived as an enabler for business. For this reason, on a policy level, initiatives like the European Commission’s Technology Transfer Office Circle have emerged with the objective of bringing the major public research organisations together in order to share best practices, knowledge and expertise, perform joint activities and develop a common approach towards international standards for the professionalisation of technology transfer.

Do IMEC inventors share common traits or common concerns?

Since a large number of IMEC inventors are involved in basic research, they share some common traits with university researchers – sometimes favoring publications and academic recognition over monetisation and/or the protection that patenting might enable. However, IMEC researchers are also much more involved with industrial partners and, as such, are more aware of the use of IP from a business point of view. The merge of academia with business provides a rich environment for the start-up ecosystem, which IMEC supports.

Does the IP (or patent) system hinder or help invention and technology transfer in your view? Ideas for improvement?

Knowledge, as we know, is an intangible asset and the IP system provides the legal and tangible framework. For IMEC having registered IP means having options to pursue different pathways for valorisation of R&D and resulting inventions, while enabling collaboration with a wide variety of partners.

One idea for improvement would be to keep the legal framework abreast with the pace of developments especially in emerging technology areas such as artificial intelligence and IoT.

What would be your message to researchers and inventor’s today seeking to take their idea to market?

For start-ups, the IP is often not a priority yet having a sound view on what you have and defining a good IP strategy right from the beginning is very important. Know your market, be fast and agile to the changing conditions!

Further information on IMEC can be found at www.imec-int.com.

More about Vincent

Vincent Ryckaert received his Civil Engineer Degree and his PhD Degree in Applied Science for his work in Industrial Automation at University of Leuven and is also a qualified European Patent Attorney. He has followed in-depth training in US Patent, Licensing Law and further developed in-depth expertise in the field of so-called software enabled patents. Since 2009 his efforts at IMEC are directed towards IP business and intelligence work and therefore further specialises in topics as IP Due Diligence, Patent Opinions and strategies, arbitration, role of IP experts in business disputes. He is qualified to act as court expert and has followed training in arbitration, offering since 2011 free-lance consultancy services thereon. In 2018 a postgraduate at University of Leuven on mediation was completed. Vincent is a board member of the European Commission’s TTO Circle.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.