Researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Director of the Bioinspired Nanomaterials Laboratory at the University of Swansea (UK) and former President of Excuse, the Association of Spanish Scientists in the USA. Francisco Martín-Martínez is an authorized voice to explain how research is approached on both sides of the Atlantic and the differences between the agile ecosystem of the American giant and the Spanish model. His research focuses on biomimetics, especially on the reuse of biomass waste as a source for the development of different materials, such as the development of battery electrodes from wood or asphalt waste that can be self-regenerating.
that studying here is “like drinking water from a fire hydrant.” You receive proposals continuously. Thus a peculiar ecosystem is created, where in just a few meters is Harvard University and ninety other institutions of higher education. And at the same time, there are a large number of companies and startups that regularly visit the faculties so that there is a ‘feedback’ of ideas or to recruit talent. For example, the first week I found myself alone in a room with Brazilian businessmen to whom I had to explain my project. I began to realize that my role as a researcher was also that of a salesperson. Here you are a scientist, consultant, speaker, and entrepreneur. On the other hand, in Spain the university is a purely academic space. Companies come to recruit students and generate feedback in classrooms.
Where does the success of that proposal lie?
MIT has a model almost like that of a real estate developer. In addition to investing in research and making money from their patents, they invested in all the land around the institution, which is called Kendall Square, and began to attract talent and companies to its university orbit. You have Moderna, Pfizer, Novartis, Google, Microsoft, and all of them are on the floor of MIT and they are paying you to be there. In this way, they can afford to search for the best talent, since MIT only selects 13% of the applications it receives, and develops a successful business model that goes beyond pure research and science, although these remain essential tractors. It is like a large corporation that has a brutal economic independence, which allows it to bet on innovative and risky projects that would be ruled out in other places.
What is good about direct contact with companies?
The positive is that all the research you do is aimed at having a real impact on society. Basic research for the sake of knowledge is still essential, and from the collaboration with private companies a whole series of patents arises, which MIT itself promotes, and which you can exploit in a company so that they do not remain in a drawer. And it is that sometimes the false opinion is generated that the entry of the companies supposes to commercialize the investigation or to privatize the sector, but there is an agreement that preserves the intention of the project. For example, Ferrovial has very large projects with MIT and they capture these mechanics. In this way, a synergy is achieved not only intellectual, but also physical and in real time. In the United Kingdom there is ‘matchfunding’, in which if a company is identified that wants to put half of the money in a doctoral research, the university agrees to put the other half. You also have to understand what is meant by failure. When you discover something that doesn’t work, it is considered a discovery, not a waste. MIT have a culture of entrepreneurship from the day you arrive until the day you leave. However, there is an obsession with this, which generates great stress, looking to be the next Elon Musk and if you don’t get it, it is a failure.
How was your experience leading Ecusa?
It allowed me to meet very diverse people, while trying to help build bridges to facilitate arrival in the US and return to Spain. There is also the interdisciplinary program Mecusa that aims to promote the role of women in science. There, the recruitment process at the university is more dynamic, in Spain it is more endogamous. You don’t see foreign people among the faculty. It is very difficult to compete like this. In Spain there are very good people, Imdea in Madrid is doing very well, also in the Basque Country and in the research institutes of Catalonia, which are the centers that I know. But in the MIT research groups, talents from all over the world coexist. Sometimes it seems that researchers who return to Spain do so despite the system, not because of the system.
What is your job?
In bioinspiration. It is based on observing the ultra-efficient systems, with zero waste, that exist in nature. A tree is more efficient than a solar panel and does not leave any residue and is reintegrated into the natural cycle. We have been able to imitate nature, but the sustainability factor is missing. Plastics are a perfect example. People talk a lot about ‘Urban Mining’, instead of exploiting natural resources to extract materials, let’s use the ones we already have in our lives, in the case of carbon electrodes, we wonder if we could make energy from shrimp shells or from the sludge from the treatment plants. I have worked with materials inspired by the strands of mussels and how they join the rock, to develop an adhesive. We also investigated how the jaw of a marine worm works, which depending on the environmental conditions became harder or more flexible, we worked with the Department of Defense on this project. Now, using computational chemistry and machine learning, I investigate the circularity of materials, for example, I investigate an asphalt that can regenerate itself.
Do you think that the Covid has reinforced in society the idea of the need to bet on long-term research?
Investing in innovation is a fundamental intangible for every country. For example, many skeptical people think that vaccines have developed too quickly, and they doubt their effectiveness. The reality is that it is not like that, Pfizer, Moderna or people I know at MIT have studied for years how cancer affects the immune system and how they can fight tumors. When the coronavirus arrives, they transfer all that accumulated knowledge to the Covid to get a quick vaccine. Therefore, the fact that vaccines were created quickly is not a problem, but rather it is their virtue. And it is proof that a good mix of investment from various entities can create milestones that were unthinkable just a year ago.