25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary: Prof. Tadeusz Uhl, a scientist and entrepreneur working in mechanics, mechatronics and vibroacoustics, talks to Anna Mateja.

The Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we have invited 25 beneficiaries of our programmes to tell us about how they “practise” science. What fascinates them? What is so exciting, compelling and important in their particular field that they have decided to devote a major part of their lives to it? How does one achieve success?

The interviewees are researchers representing many very different fields, at different stages of their scientific careers, with diverse experience. But they have one thing in common: they practise science of the highest world standard, they have impressive achievements to their credit and different kinds of FNP support in their extensive CVs. We are launching the publication of our cycle; successive interviews will appear regularly on the FNP website.

Pleasant reading!

Thinking Rules the Market

Prof. Tadeusz Uhl, a scientist and entrepreneur working in mechanics, mechatronics and vibroacoustics, talks to Anna Mateja.

ANNA MATEJA: When did you cross the “Darwinian Sea”?

TADEUSZ UHL: Around 2006 my engineering company had been in existence for eight years, but its operations were still limited to providing research services, mainly to large corporations. It was a time of functioning from one day to the next, with no planned actions or thinking about innovation, and I only hired people when I had projects to complete. Finally, I started investing the money I made in developing products under my own brand. And that’s when I found myself in the Darwinian Sea, where little fish are eaten by bigger ones. If I were to survive, I had to change my thinking about my business, shifting the focus from development to sales. So, I didn’t plan another product or technology but worked on a business model aimed at winning new customers for what I already produced. It was hard abandoning thoughts of further development in favour of increasing sales. It wasn’t just because I had to seek capital. It was more a psychological problem than a business one: to founders or owners of a tech company, development will always be more important than the market.

What about an entrepreneur who is a scientist?

That made it even harder. I was naturally more interested in research and development than in solving sales and maintenance problems. I changed my way of thinking because I really wanted the company to survive, and I felt responsible for the almost 60 people I already employed at the time.

I treated the business like my child. In 1998, when it was born, I was a professor at AGH University of Science and Technology (I had received the title a year earlier) whose company fit into a single folder.

Your initial capital?

What I had, I had in my head. I became an entrepreneur because I got annoyed, not because I wanted to get rich. (By the way, in the company’s first years I really economized. I didn’t take out loans and only invested my own money.) It all started when my university’s finance office, which I had asked to issue an invoice for work I’d done for the fertilizer plant in Kędzierzyn-Koźle, told me it was virtually impossible, unless I wrote a schedule, opened an order, added 300% in surcharges (the value of overheads). I couldn’t understand why they had to be so high when I’d done the work all by myself. Besides, the customer didn’t want to pay that much. That’s when I lost my temper and went to the tax office to register a business enterprise.

It was new to me, because the job for which I issued a handwritten invoice two weeks later had not been scientifically innovative. I’d done it many times before, only this time it was for a specific application. I developed a system for monitoring turbine compressors after a piece of a turbine broke off in an accident at the plant in Kędzierzyn-Koźle, went through the roof and sailed over the building, covering a distance of a few hundred metres. Nobody was killed, but the plant had to get a vibration monitoring system to safeguard the turbine from this kind of accident.

And they found you, a vibroacoustics scientist—a researcher of vibrations and all kinds of acoustic processes occurring in nature, devices, vehicles. Filling in the papers at the tax office, did you not stop to think that you didn’t know how to run a business? During this time, after six years at R&D centres abroad, you wrote several grant applications and were told that they were great because they opened up new fields of research, but the overall evaluation couldn’t be high because, as a reviewer put it, “You know nothing about this.”

And I didn’t get the grants. Maybe I should have been afraid, but my desire to test my knowledge in practice was stronger. I’d already written a dozen or so books, published many papers (though the citation index, as happens with technical journals, was not impressive). Maybe that’s why I wanted to find out if this knowledge was worth anything? Later I achieved everything step by step, learning from my own mistakes. I passed through the Valley of Death when I had to turn ideas into innovations and find my first customers. And I crossed the Darwinian Sea. New needs forced me to start systematic studies, e.g. on the commercialization of research and on management.

The turning point for me was when employment grew to over a hundred people. Before then, I knew more or less what each of my employees did and could act as their manager myself. After that it was impossible. I had to trust people even though my experience hadn’t always been good. The bigger the company got, the more often I met people who tried to cheat me. I survived those tough times, and I still believe in people, but I am very careful.

Your business today comprises seven companies with 600 engineers working for them. Among other things, they work in services related to designing vehicles or systems for the chemical industry and the power sector. That means you are interested in designing a train just as much as improving the efficiency of a semitrailer. And inventions, too. Your achievements include designing Poland’s first unmanned helicopter for measurement and monitoring, a microrobot for studying cells, and a device detecting microdamage in building and aircraft structures.

But at first I worked alone. More employees, and with them the expansion of the business, appeared as I won new customers and their orders. The usual way this happened was that I knew what problems prospective customers had and came to them with a solution, as a scientist and as an entrepreneur.

I started from consulting work, and one of the first companies I set up dealt with building research laboratories and bringing new technologies to Poland. After six years at international scientific institutions, including in the United States, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, I knew what labs should look like. And I also had contact information for equipment manufacturers. The first big project I did (a tram, it runs in Gdańsk) was for Alstom Power, an international corporation that makes means of transportation. A railbus designed for the Poznań rolling stock repair plant was the first project for a Polish company that I completed with a team. It was put into production and runs to this day.

I built the business step by step, believing that this method made it more lasting, resistant to turbulence in the economic situation. But you can do it the other way round: when you have an idea, you take out a loan, hire people and look for buyers for your product or technology. Today I can afford actions that anticipate the market. I work on ideas for which demand has yet to appear.

But how do you know that it will? In your lectures, when you speak about the road that science and business have to travel in order to meet, you often underline that Poland has no system encouraging industry to introduce innovations.

It’s a winding road between science and business in Polish conditions, among other things because our companies have become mainly subcontractors making parts for products manufactured by foreign corporations. For example, Poland is the biggest manufacturer of car parts, but not cars. Because it is predictable (a steady buyer, labour, material and energy costs calculated in advance), such business is easier than competing on the global market with your own product. As a consequence, there are few companies here that have their own product and a brand recognized in the world.

Actually, corporations do stimulate subcontractors to develop by providing new technologies or process improvements, but only those that will serve their own products. In such circumstances the chances of creating your own product capable of standing its ground in the world are small. And in my opinion only a product of its own gives a company a lasting foundation, because then it’s possible to plan the company’s future even over the next 20 years. When you’re a subcontractor, your operations can come to a halt almost overnight when you don’t receive your next order.

But you need innovation for your own product, so there has to be science and research behind it. Innovations are necessary because only they can ensure a competitive edge in a world that has no shortage of capital and where anything can be produced in almost any location. You can only compete on the global market with ideas: innovation and the ability to introduce it effectively.

So far in Poland, no mechanism is in place to reward such activity and there is no tolerance for the risk that always goes with innovations. It’s different in Western Europe or the United States, where it is somehow obvious that excellently equipped research centres run by leading corporations, which ensure their development, benefit everyone. I’ll explain this using the example of my research aimed at solving structural problems in the transport sector. In a large corporation, designing and launching production of a new train costs almost EUR 100 million and takes five years. In Poland you can get it done for as little as PLN 10 million within a year or two. But if you compare the two projects in terms of working out the details or the technologies used, there is practically no comparison. The products of those big corporations are almost flawless in operation. Over here, it depends. Sometimes the result is an excellent product, but sometimes…

Cracks appear, for example, as was the case in a type of train made by a Polish company, for which the Office of Rail Transport issued a safety alert in February 2016.

And it happened to a company that has many prototypes and is doing very well on the market, winning new contracts. But if prototypes are put into production, the risk of a breakdown is substantial. Big Western corporations first work on a product and then launch it on the market. There is time to observe and learn new solutions, test them. In Poland, companies often start thinking about the design after winning a tender, adapting it to the sum the customer is able to pay. Spending has to be planned economically, so it’s hard for products packed with innovations and original technical ideas to be created in such conditions.

Well, if we don’t have enough money…

But there’s plenty of capital in the world! Only we are too impatient. We were a poor country, and our priority, once we were able to start making money, was to get rich following the shortest possible path. The normal path seems too long. Who’d want to work on a new product for five years, spending a lot of money, if there’s a simpler way? We are still impressed by quick money, not money from years of work. That’s also what the system supports, among other things because the costs incurred during work on developing a new product are taxable.

There are exceptions, such as Solaris Bus & Coach SA from Bolechowo near Poznań, where AGH University of Science and Technology has labs that my team designed and built. I really wanted this collaboration because I knew that by working long-term on every project, the company launched advanced and carefully designed products. Wielton SA, which makes semitrailers among other things, does the same. For them, I’m working on innovations for what is essentially a simple product, namely a semitrailer. Thanks to its ability to adjust to market changes, this company can compete with the leaders. It is the third-largest company of its kind in Europe (behind two German ones), and builds factories outside Poland as well, conquering new markets.

So it’s not that we don’t have encouraging examples of a different way of thinking than that based on making quick money. But it is a fact that this approach is neither appreciated nor built systemically.

Science and business differ in almost everything, starting with the language their communities use, all the way to objectives. What could cooperation between science and business look like if they set aside their mutual prejudice and agreed that scientists and businesspeople could achieve a lot together?

Cooperation cannot be institutional, imposed from the top down, but to my mind should be based on transfer of people. Briefly, it could look like this: The company head meets with the lab head to tell them about the product and the problem they need to solve. It will be dealt with by a person from the company, employed there, who, say for three years, will work under a scientist’s supervision at the lab. A problem like this is most often a segment of a larger project, but the researcher will devote 100% of his or her time to it and find a solution based on scientific foundations. This will enable the researcher to write a doctoral dissertation (though solving the company’s problem will be the priority).

After obtaining the degree, the researcher will return to the company with knowledge, experience and awareness of just how useful scientific knowledge is in business. For the university this is not time wasted either, because the researcher formed in this way will become its unofficial ambassador, knowing the lab and the capabilities of the people working there. And that should pay off later with new research topics and finding people in business interested in them. So far I’ve been able to oversee a few such industrial dissertations. However, they were financed not by the university but by companies, which funded stipends for my PhD students interested in topics important to those companies.

But propagating this kind of good practice in Poland takes time and the good will of both parties. Meanwhile, scientists, or at least some of them, think industry should simply come to them. But how are businesspeople supposed to know that science has solutions they would find useful? On the other hand, not once and not twice have I seen behaviours at businesses founded on the view that “we don’t need to be taught.” Luckily, due to progress in both technology and practice, which has convinced people that innovations enable them to increase their income, there is less room for such attitudes. But I’ve always found it funny, especially since in France, for example, when as a young researcher I came to some great technology company with a solution that could interest them, they listened very carefully to me, and other science workers too.

How did you know that something was cracking or leaking?

From users or other researchers. And since science already knew how to solve the problem, why not go see how things really were? In France, business appreciates proposals presented by scientists—everyone knows they can benefit. To this day I spend most of my time on travel to factories, presentations, discussions. It’s probably the most direct way for science and business not only to meet (so far at least in Poland they seem to live in parallel worlds) but to learn about each other and be able to collaborate.

There is a shortage of leaders in the Polish economy. That’s another issue I have to mention. We have great engineers, but few among them have ideas, are not afraid of risk, and display a commitment convincing enough to make others follow them. We are short of personalities of the likes of Bill Gates who created Microsoft, Elon Musk who heads Tesla, or Gordon Moore who created Intel. Visionaries of that calibre can change anything. Not only because they can propose an idea that will enable a factory offering thousands of jobs to be built. Above all, they are effective in introducing breakthrough innovations and thus can influence the global market.

I’m afraid forming such personalities is too hard for our education system, which is being reformed again.

And this won’t change unless we start rewarding exceptional people with imagination who are able to proceed in unconventional ways. Also at universities, where today the number of employed graduates is a measure of success. Since the most jobs are offered by corporations, we educate mainly narrow-minded technocrats who can spend long years working within a single type of procedure. But how does our country benefit from preparing employees for corporations, besides the income tax paid on their salaries? Who will bring us ideas? Ideas that are interesting because they take into account what is happening in the world? Idea that not only respond to certain needs but can anticipate them? And lead to the development of breakthrough innovations even if their application might not be possible until 10–20 years later?

Competition in technology is crazy, and Poland is losing, unfortunately, also because we have dispersed interests, instead of considering the existing human and financial capital, market possibilities and infrastructure, and focusing on a few selected areas and investing in them. I appreciate the initiative of the Ministry of Development which has decided on electro-mobility, but do we stand a chance of outstripping corporations that invest more than Poland does? Will our products be able to win markets around the world?

How do you know they won’t sell? The programme’s authors claim that by 2025 the country will have a million electric vehicles made in Poland. The environment will be cleaner and we’ll be healthier.

But what traditions do we have? The Warszawa, the Syrena, the Polonez? Let’s be serious. Undertaking to manufacture an electric passenger car, you need to realize that unless hundreds of thousands are sold every year, it will be no more than a toy for hobbyists. Are we able to promote such a product well enough to reach global markets, competing against automotive giants? Manufacturing isn’t everything (in fact it’s the least of the problem because it’s simpler than making a car with an internal-combustion engine). You need a maintenance and dealership network all over the world, which costs a great deal but is essential. Building a global structure for selling a new product is too much financially even for the Chinese, but we can do it? Perhaps it would be more sensible to use the money to buy, for example, half the shares in an automotive giant and then move its research labs and development centres to Poland. Whatever we invented there we could sell using the corporation’s existing network.

A project as big as the one planned by the Ministry of Development should be preceded by an in-depth market analysis, because this means decisions would be based on business risk analysis. I hope something like that has been done. Otherwise we will build an electro-mobility market for others, because we won’t benefit from it ourselves. It’s also important that we have to be patient. The history of Tesla cars shows that market success might not appear for a decade or more.

The project will be financed by four power companies owned by the State Treasury, after they charge the money to electricity users in their bills. What if the money were to be used differently?

It could go, for example, to a company with Polish capital, such as Solaris, which has been building its brand for over 20 years. The task: design and find a market for a remote-controlled electric garbage truck. Or maybe, like Western Europe, we should finally decide on expanding the railway system and the relevant technological ideas? But this way of thinking goes beyond the horizon of probably every government, because it takes time. You have to build tracks, after purchasing land; then fulfilling an order for a train takes about two years, or longer if it’s to be an innovative model. But choosing such a solution when the next elections are in four years at the latest? Besides, such programmes require collaboration between politicians, researchers and managers.

For someone dealing with challenges of this scale, can FNP’s MISTRZ/MASTER programme have any significance?

For me it was huge. It enabled me to hire PhD students, because at my faculty no funding is reserved for stipends for them. This means many PhD students have to combine scientific work on a voluntary basis with paid work. The professor’s grant enabled me to direct these young people solely towards research, thanks to which one of them is now in the middle of his postdoctoral degree and another has obtained a postdoctoral degree. We solved several detailed problems related to monitoring the state of technical equipment, using highly advanced research methods. However, to me the most important thing in the MISTRZ/MASTER programme is precisely the possibility of financing the work of young people, because they make science. People my age no longer have the strength or the time to sit in a lab. At best, they can show young people the research directions, correct what they do and motivate them to further effort.

When you became a student in the early 1970s, during the time of prosperity under Edward Gierek, were you also this energetic?

But I didn’t even want the course I took! I was a track and fielder with very good results in medium-distance runs and the possibility of enrolling at the University of Physical Education (AWF), when my maths teacher from the Jan III Sobieski school in Kraków summoned my parents. If I didn’t want to study maths, then who should do it? I gave up AWF but didn’t let myself be persuaded to choose maths. I chose automation at AGH University of Science and Technology.

Over the next few years I didn’t have time for anything. I started each day with a 23-kilometre run from Wieliczka to Niepołomice, then classes at the university. At the end of the day I trained at the stadium. On Saturdays I either appeared at sports competitions or worked on projects. I spent 16 weeks a year at sports camps.

Where do you get the motivation to live like that?

It just came of itself. I had an idea and the ambition to succeed, so I became committed. On the other hand, I didn’t want to go to Texas after graduation in 1980, where my father’s friend proposed that I could run an aluminium structure factory. A while before, my master’s thesis supervisor had suggested that I could stay at the university. I hadn’t planned on becoming a scientist, but still I knew it was much more interesting.

Prof. TADEUSZ UHL (born 1956 in Nowy Sącz) heads the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Robotics of AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. In 1998 he founded an engineering company that today is called the EC Group (specializing in high technology for the power, railway, aviation and machine sectors). He is a winner of FNP’s MISTRZ/MASTER programme (2010).