The official opening of the BASF Advanced Research Initiative at Harvard was celebrated with an inaugural two-day symposium (April 29-30) on biofilms. The initiative, with direct funding from BASF — a chemical company with offices around the word — to reach up to $20 million in the next five years, represents an innovative model for university-industry collaboration. Researchers from BASF’s German headquarters will have the opportunity to work on-site in Harvard labs, easing scientific exchange on projects, as well as fostering broader interaction between the two institutions.

Moreover, the arrangement will give participating students a way to interact with industry without ever having to leave campus. In fact, since the initiative was first announced last fall, 10 postdoctoral students from the United States, France, Italy, Switzerland, and China have already initiated multiple projects, such as investigating the interaction between bacteria and surfaces and using colloidal techniques to develop formulations of pharmaceutical actives with a higher bioavailability.

Based at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the interdisciplinary initiative will have strong ties with students, departments, and Schools throughout the University. In addition, relationships with other research groups at universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as with technology-transfer and other companies in New England, have already been established.

The two-day symposium on biofilms, held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, provided a glimpse at what the organizers of the initiative hope to accomplish. Microbial biofilms on surfaces cause billions of dollars in losses each year in equipment damage, product contamination, and energy losses.

Equally important, biofilms cause medical infections, resulting in adverse and detrimental effects on human life. George Whitesides, Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, and co-director of the initiative, said taming biofilms will require both new ways of thinking and new relationships, like the initiative, that mesh together academic and industry perspectives. With that in mind, Harvard faculty will have the freedom to distribute and publish findings from the initiative, and BASF will have the opportunity to further develop discoveries and innovations for possible commercialization.

In addition to Whitesides, BASF’s Jens Rieger, scientific director of polymer research, and Harvard’s David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, are directing the initiative.