Published 2019-03-12

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Lars Frenning connects academia and companies

Lars Frenning has long worked to induce Swedish SMEs to collaborate more closely with academic researchers. Over the past 15 years, he has pursued this aim as head of Mistra Innovation. Given a choice, he would like to continue as Programme Director for a while longer.

‘I understand if Mistra says I’m too old, but I’d like to keep going for another five years. Helping Sweden and Swedish businesses to become more competitive is great fun.’

In 2019, Mistra Innovation’s second phase will be completed. There are plans for a third, and Mistra’s Board will reach a definite decision in March. Although Frenning recently turned 72, an age when many people retire, he has no plans to reduce his workload.

Of Mistra’s many programme directors, Lars Frenning is an odd man out. One reason is that Mistra Innovation is different from other academically managed Mistra programmes, in terms of both organisation and its focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The other reason is that he is not himself active as a researcher. True, he has done a great deal of work on R&D issues and has a PhD (from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, 1977) on his CV. But his experience comes mainly from Swedish manufacturing industry.

First, he spent 16 years at ASEA (now ABB), the Västerås industrial group, in roles including those of quantity surveyor and designer; he then became development manager for engines and propulsion systems. Subsequently, he was recruited by the pump manufacturer ITT Flygt Pumps, where he worked as Technical Director and eventually CEO.

‘All this time, I’ve been curious about innovations and product development, with a desire to make constant improvements. It’s been a driving force in me.’

It is hardly surprising that the youthful Lars both took an interest in technology and, in due course chose to train as an engineer. His father and paternal grandfather were both engineers. Just like them, Frenning too worked at ASEA. Today, both his sons are also engineers.

As Programme Director, Frenning has benefited from his own work capacity and goal-oriented disposition — first at Pro Enviro, the research programme run by Mistra in 2005–10 in cooperation with the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, and later for two funding periods of Mistra Innovation. In the former, the participating companies and researchers jointly run and implement individual projects. In particular, Frenning’s task was to support the companies during the project.

‘As project manager, too, it’s essential to be able to identify the right targets to aim for and the resources required, and then engage in the best activities for attaining them.’

Around 2000, Lars Frenning was still CEO at ITT Flygt. At the time, outsourcing was emerging as a concept in public debate. Many Swedish companies relocated their production from Sweden to low-income countries — a trend that was partly supported by economists and politicians, according to Frenning.

‘We technicians realised it wouldn’t work. Without our own manufacturing, we also lose touch with the product, and then in the long run we wouldn’t be able to design anything either. Sweden would have ended up with neither manufacturing nor development.’

After leaving ITT Flygt in 2001 to start his own consulting business, Frenning was engaged by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) a few years later, to run the Produktion för konkurrenskraft (‘Production for competitiveness’) project. The final (2004) report had a major impact on the debate, and helped to bring industrial production to the fore.

‘Today, attitudes are more balanced. Our politicians have realised China can’t be the workshop of the world. It’s important for Sweden to maintain the entire chain, from development to production.’

As Programme Director at Mistra, Frenning has kept on working to maintain and develop Swedish industrial production. The purpose of Mistra Innovation — and formerly Pro Enviro — has been to ensure that smaller companies, which lack their own research resources, get support to develop environmentally innovative products, thereby generating growth. And the programme outcomes are excellent, Frenning says proudly.

‘Mistra’s evaluations show that, for every krona invested in Mistra Innovation projects, the annual return averages three to four times the original investment.’

He lists several successes from the latest funding period of Mistra Innovation. In one project, on industrial frying, LPG has been replaced by electricity — costing 90% less. In another, use of a new type of lead-free brass in plumbing products has begun. A third project has developed small electric vehicles that are already in use in Stockholm and being test-driven in India.

Moreover, Frenning considers that Mistra’s total budget of SEK 300m (‘After all, it’s not that much money’) would do more good if it supported projects favouring industrial development to a greater extent.

‘I think we should focus more on research with a direct influence on Sweden. Take Mistra Innovation as an example: we support a key industry that exports products worldwide. We’ve developed the Swedish business sector and also contribute tax revenue, just as the politicians want.’

Lars Frenning in brief

Current

Programme Director of Pro Enviro (2005–10) and Mistra Innovation (2011–19). In March, Mistra’s Board will decide whether there will be another funding period for Mistra Innovation.

Lives

Home in Tiveden, near Karlsborg.

Family

Wife, four children and seven grandchildren.

Leisure

My favourite pastimes are growing apple trees and other gardening jobs, and being out and about in the countryside.