Luigi Vandi neatly fits the archetype of the academic entrepreneur. He is currently a Research Fellow in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland and completed his PhD in the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program.
Before his PhD, Luigi lived in Europe. He obtained a master’s degree in Materials Science from the National Polytechnic Institute of Lorraine (now known as University of Lorraine) in France and then found himself involved in the manufacture of high-performance composites for the Ferrari F1 Team in Italy. There he gained two years of industry experience, and then decided to begin his PhD.
“When I wanted to do a PhD, it was very important to me that the PhD would have an industry focus. Because my idea was to return to industry after my PhD.”
He gladly took the opportunity to travel to Australia and undertake his PhD with the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures (CRC-ACS) and the University of Queensland.
“CRC-ACS was a high-impact collaboration with industry. It also offered the possibility to work with one of those industry partners in the future. That’s what initially attracted me to the CRC program.”
Luigi’s industry PhD focused on improving the understanding of a technology patented by CRC-ACS called Thermoset Composite Welding (TCW). He won the 2014 CRC Association Early Career Research award for this project. The technology has potential for automotive and aerospace applications, and for the latter reason, the primary industry partner was aerospace corporation Airbus SE. Luigi discussed the benefits of collaborating with industry as a doctorate researcher.
“It brought focus and kept my PhD relevant to the real-world application. Also, just being exposed to industry and their way of working was beneficial. I learned a lot just from the interactions with industry partners and attending their meetings. The third benefit was that it created the opportunity to travel to the industry partner, which was in France in my case.”
He also discussed the outcomes of his research. “The impact was twofold. Firstly, it helped Airbus gain understanding in the technology, and therefore more confidence to adopt the technology. Secondly, it led to a patent based on this new understanding. That was a great outcome for me as a researcher.”
Luigi had begun his PhD intending to return to industry afterward – but he decided to continue within academia, where he remains today. He realised that his primary desire was to conduct applied research, and that it was possible to maintain a deep engagement with industry as an academic researcher.
“I also realised that often industry subcontracts their research to universities and other research organisations. So, there was a possibility that in industry I would not be doing research myself but subcontracting to others. Therefore, I stayed in academia.” Apart from fulfilling his desire to pursue applied research, a benefit of being an industry-focused researcher is the ability to tap into industry funding.
But this career path also has challenges. He explained that the performance indicators of academia can often be opposed to the needs of industry – which makes performance reviews a difficult process. “I guess my profile is atypical. The metrics of academics are publications and teaching. But if there is a demand from industry out there, I shouldn’t be turning them down. This is the path I’ve chosen, and it’s great if I can get good industry funding. But it’s also coming at a cost.
“I would advocate that there is a need for an industry focus in academia. What could be done, to be very practical and pragmatic, is create permanent positions that have those roles. Because at the moment if you want to follow this path, which is my case, you’re on short-term contracts and you have to self-fund yourself.”
Luigi moved on to discuss what he is currently working on in his research. “This project is about developing new strawberry punnets for the strawberry industry.” The punnets currently sold in supermarkets are recyclable in name, but Luigi said that they mostly end up in landfill. “We’re developing a new biodegradable material for the strawberry punnets. And we’re also changing the design of the punnets so it looks more like a woven basket.”
Luigi has three industry partners for this project: LuvaBerry Farm, SDI Plastics, and the Queensland Strawberry Grower Association (QSGA). These organisations are the primary producer, manufacturer, and end-user respectively. “We have the whole supply chain which is very good, to ensure that the product does reach market.”
The project is partly funded by the Queensland Government under the Advanced Queensland Initiative. The program is a fellowship called the Advanced Queensland Industry Research Fellowship (AQIRF) which encourages individual academics to conduct industrial research. “I’m excited about it because it fits my profile really well. It gives me the freedom to engage with industry partners and gives me three years to focus on what I like and find solutions for industry partners without having to worry about other metrics.”
Read more about Luigi’s research here.