How to forge stronger ties between universities and industry

Ahead of the Asia Universities Summit, Feridun Hamdullahpur sets out what you need to consider when carrying out industry-funded research

March 13, 2017

The future of successful economies and prospering free societies will very much depend on a new type of collaboration between various players – and universities are an essential part of that.

In particular, research collaboration between universities and industry is the key to unlocking the resources of universities. It is the gateway to problem-solving and discovery. But how does industry succeed at partnering with universities, and how do universities succeed in partnering with the private sector? 

Successful partnerships are about people. You need to manage the relationship. This takes people skilled in corporate engagement and partnership management.  

Many universities that do a lot of partnering have full-time corporate liaison staff. These are experienced individuals with deep knowledge of the university who can help to manage expectations on both sides. For example, a company must understand the need for academics and their students to publish. Explain from the beginning the terms in the research contract where the university has room to negotiate and the terms that are non-negotiable (such as protections for progress of graduate students). 

Maintaining freedom and opportunity for researchers is key to being an attractive research partner. It’s not just about the money. While companies need preferred access to intellectual property, it is vital to protect the ability of researchers to be able to continue their main line of research without being locked out of future research as a result of overly restrictive IP terms.

Focus on the research opportunity. Don’t worry about licensing royalties up-front. Work with researchers to uncover their aspirations and find an arrangement that provides value for both sides. 

Understand the culture. Does the academic principal investigator understand that corporate research funding is not a grant? Does the company understand that academics don’t view partnerships as simple “work for hire”?  A university "research office" plays a role in helping to set expectations with the company and the PI. 

Timing, speed and deliverables can mean something very different to an academic researcher and to a corporation. A "long-term horizon" might mean two years to a company and 10 years to an academic researcher. The increment of labour in university research is usually a graduate student. The right student may need to be recruited, provided with time to get up to speed on the project and gain specialised skills, while also taking graduate courses, so projects take time to build speed, but once they do they can provide amazing results far cheaper than the private sector.

Research is systematic investigation in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. The outcome is unknown at the outset. Companies need to understand that a strict schedule of deliverables is usually not possible. 

Dedicated, specialised staff at the institutional level (such as corporate research partnership managers) are adept at managing the research partnership aspect of corporate engagement. They work in both an inbound and outbound manner among their university’s researchers, global corporations, embassies and other local, national and international organisations to manage the expectations and needs of the parties involved.

Win-win scenarios are the goal. They collaborate regularly across the university’s academic and staff units. They have knowledge of industry sectors and of national and global research funding programmes. They develop and implement tools to manage the partnership such as a term sheet for the sponsored research agreement (the research contract), and provide a summary of IP scenarios.

Many academics appreciate the opportunity to advance their research through the specific application that a company research partnership allows. Some institutions have a very “open for business” culture among their academics, while others prefer traditional research models of grant funding. 

Ultimately, a company wants new products, services and increased revenue. It partners with an academic institution for research because it believes that the partnership can help to achieve its goals. It also wants to knock on an easy-to-find, friendly university “front door” that will be answered by a point of contact who is responsive, helpful, and who will direct the company based on its needs. It is less concerned with the institution’s internal structure and roles across academic and staff units.  

Universities can evolve to develop more sophisticated mechanisms to make it easy for corporations and academics to partner on research and for corporations to engage with the university and its entire ecosystem. A visible, friendly "front door" into the university is one way.  

Centres and institutes that coordinate large concentrations of researchers around a general theme can be attractive avenues for partnering. The concentration of research strength attracts significant government funding and the attention of major corporations. Cross-disciplinary research occurs naturally within the centre. 

Science and technology advancements are growing exponentially. Interdisciplinary and international research partnerships among academics, corporations and other partners, when managed well, allow innovation to flourish and all participants to reap benefits. 

Feridun Hamdullahpur is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. He is speaking this week at the THE Asia Universities Summit, which is on the theme "developing stronger alliances between universities and industry". 

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