Universities with the biggest corporate links

John Morgan looks at the universities in Asia and beyond that have forged the closest ties with industrial partners

March 9, 2017
Korean engineer
Source: Getty

Should you find yourself driving along the ring road in the Swedish city of Gothenburg any time soon, do not be alarmed if the Volvo driver alongside you takes their hands off the steering wheel. As their car continues to speed along, they might stretch out and put their hands behind their head, or even start reading a magazine. Assuming the technology works as planned, no pile-ups should result.

A research project testing 100 autonomous vehicles in real traffic forms one element of a long-standing collaboration between Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg and Volvo Cars. The research publications co-authored by Chalmers and a number of Volvo companies are reflected in a table, produced by Clarivate Analytics for Times Higher Education, of universities with the highest proportion of their research published in collaboration with a single corporate partner. Chalmers is even more prominent in a table of universities that produce the highest proportion of their research publications in collaboration with industry in general.

Volvo Cars is no longer Swedish-owned or even US-owned: China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought it from Ford in 2010. The strength of Asian companies’ involvement in research is reflected in the first of Clarivate’s tables, which is dominated by South Korean universities publishing in collaboration with Samsung, the Korean multinational electronics conglomerate that also incorporates firms such as Samsung Heavy Industries and Samsung Life Insurance. Such collaborations take up seven of the top 14 places, accounting for between 2 and 5 per cent of those universities’ total research outputs.

As these figures indicate, university-industry collaboration is on a different scale in South Korea compared with any other country. One of the institutions that figures prominently is Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), a private research university based in Seoul, originally founded in the 14th century. In 1996, Samsung entered into a far-reaching alliance with SKKU that has sometimes been described as an “acquisition” of the university.

In 1986, the Korean steel company POSCO founded another institution that figures highly in the same table, the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH). Through this link, according to a POSTECH spokesman, the university’s “human resources quality in scientific and technological research is considered number one in the world steel industry. Consequently, POSTECH becomes a world-class research university while POSCO has been ranked ‘the most competitive steel firm in the world’ for seven years in a row.” As an example of the fruits of collaboration, he cites the iron-making technology FINEX, which “has been developed by POSTECH professors and has been successful in being commercialised”.

There are clear explanations as to why South Korea – a poor, agriculture-based economy until the early 1960s that has undergone an industrial miracle since – is so strong in university-industry collaboration.

“Korea has one of the highest R&D intensities in the world and a focus on high-tech industries,” says Martin Hemmert, professor of international business at Korea University Business School. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the proportion of South Korean GDP spent on R&D has risen from 1.74 per cent in 1991 to 4.23 per cent in 2015: second only to Israel among OECD members. “However, coming from a catch-up position, many companies did not have strong competencies in basic research, hence they try to strengthen and augment them via research collaborations with universities,” Hemmert says.

While other nations may admire the Korean collaboration model, it should also perhaps offer pause for thought. The confidentiality requirements of Samsung typify one of the most significant barriers to collaboration between university researchers and industry.

“Anything that has got a big impact, they [companies] won’t want it to be published,” says Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, chair of the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, which has built strong links with firms such as Jaguar Land Rover and Tata. “That is always a problem.”

Bhattacharyya adds that many firms’ reluctance to publish research results jolts against the fact that academics are “predominantly judged on the basis of publication” in many nations – whether when making bids for public research funding, seeking promotion or gaining membership of eminent societies. That is “one of the reasons why there isn’t so much connectivity between academics and the market”, he says.

So, if we look at some of the universities that are publishing the highest proportions of their research in collaboration with industry, what lessons can they teach about the secrets of success and the perils to be sidestepped?


Man with Samsung VR
Source: 
Getty

KAIST and Samsung; SKKU and Samsung

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) was founded in 1971 by the South Korean government, with loan funding from the overseas aid arm of the US government. The aim was to train the scientists and engineers needed by Korea’s developing industries. Today, KAIST’s biggest industrial link in terms of publications is with Samsung, generating 3.6 per cent of the institution’s total research output.

How does KAIST’s collaboration with Samsung work?

“Most of our projects with the company are about developing new technology closely linked to future product lines, and therefore it is difficult for us to talk about this issue at present,” says In So Kweon, KEPCO professor in KAIST’s School of Electrical Engineering.

“For example, we are researching original technologies for next-generation mobile phones. These technologies are innovative and groundbreaking in nature because they have never existed before in the world.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to reveal details of our joint projects due to our confidentiality agreement with Samsung, but the data will be available after we complete our work.”

He adds: “We value our long-running collaborations with Samsung as a great deal of our joint work focuses on challenging problems and finding new solutions while pushing the frontiers of knowledge. Likewise, companies such as Samsung can secure original technologies vital to their continued progress and future growth as well as develop a quality workforce in their R&D sector.”

Kweon says of plans for future partnerships with Samsung that KAIST researchers “would like to tackle issues posed by the current software platforms being used on smartphones, and develop so-called ‘killer applications’” – a reference to applications that become indispensable to users.

A Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) spokesman describes the alliance with Samsung as “a mutually beneficial arrangement in that SKKU provides customised educational programmes as well as jointly developing innovative technology, and Samsung secures qualified people for its workforce that help the organisation remain globally competitive”.

There are 150 joint research projects between SKKU and Samsung annually. Among those producing published research together is the Samsung-SKKU Graphene Centre, whose publications include the snappily titled 2016 Nature Communications paper “Two-terminal floating-gate memory with van der Waals heterostructures for ultrahigh on/off ratio”.

Two scientists at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in isolating and characterising graphene. The super-thin material has huge potential if it can be commercialised for use in electronics devices. And the race is on between the UK, Samsung in Korea and others to be the first to develop such commercial uses.

In 2014, Samsung made headlines around the world after announcing that, in partnership with SKKU’s School of Advanced Materials Science and Engineering, researchers at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology had “uncovered a new method of growing large area, single crystal wafer scale graphene”.

The company added that previously “researchers have found that multi-crystal synthesis – the process of synthesising small graphene particles to produce large-area graphene – deteriorated the electric and mechanical properties of the material, limiting its application range and making it difficult to commercialise”.

But university-industry collaboration is not all a bed of commercialised roses.

“Quite a few academics in Korea, particularly at leading research universities, are not very keen on industry collaborations, as they are concerned that these collaborations distract them from research that results in scientific publications,” says Korea University Business School’s Hemmert, who has published a number of papers on the nation’s university-industry collaborations. “Universities in Korea have strengthened publication requirements for their faculty, resulting in pressure for international peer-reviewed journal publications.”

However, Hemmert notes that one of his studies “suggests that industry projects may in fact help university researchers with scientific knowledge acquisition”.

As Kweon makes clear, there are confidentiality requirements in a fast-moving, high-stakes, ultra-competitive market such as mobile phone technology that can be a barrier to publication.

Just how high the stakes can be was made clear in 2015, when it was reported that a former senior director at the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company had been temporarily barred from working for Samsung by a Taiwanese court, over concerns “about revealing trade secrets”.

He had taken up a job as an SKKU lecturer, Taiwan’s China Post reported. “However, since Samsung is part of a consortium at the university, TSMC officials suspected that Liang actually went to work for their competitor and accused him of providing Samsung with TSMC’s trade secrets, after he officially started working for Samsung in 2011.”

Samsung has also recently found itself embroiled in a corruption scandal that has seen South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, impeached and her powers suspended. In mid-January, the New York Times reported that Korean prosecutors “were seeking the arrest of the de facto head of Samsung”, Jay Y. Lee, in relation to allegations that payments were made to an associate of Park in exchange for the president’s help “in facilitating a father-to-son transfer of ownership control of Samsung”.

Hemmert says that “some colleagues fret about SKKU as ‘Samsung University’ – other leading universities take pride in their independence from any particular partner or donor”.

Yet he believes that it is unlikely that there will be “lasting damage from being associated with Samsung due to the recent scandal. Scandals come and go. Not all people like Samsung, for various reasons, but everybody is also fully aware of their number one position in Korean business and their outstanding global success over many decades.”


Strength in numbers

Graph: Number of co-authored papers

Click to view and/or download a high-resolution version
Note: Numbers refer to the number of co-authored papers, 2007-16.


NTNU and SINTEF

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), based in Trondheim, takes the number one spot in the table of universities producing the highest proportion of their research in collaboration with a single partner from industry – in this case SINTEF, a non-profit that is the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia. The link accounts for 9.1 per cent of NTNU’s total research output.

NTNU’s roots lie in the Norwegian Institute of Technology, founded in 1910. That institution created SINTEF in 1950 “as a vehicle to have more extended industrial cooperation”, says Nils Røkke, executive vice-president for sustainability at SINTEF.

When the Norwegian Institute of Technology became a broad-based university in 1996 and was renamed NTNU, SINTEF became a private research institute, but the two have collaborated closely since. The link drew much of its early strength from the drive for Norway to develop new technologies to exploit the huge oil reserves discovered in the 1970s – reserves that have made it one of the richest countries in the world.

“We cooperate in many other areas,” says Johan Hustad, the university’s director of energy, citing renewable energy technologies in solar, wind and hydro power in particular.

Some SINTEF departments are located at NTNU and the two share laboratories. SINTEF has more of a role in applied research, the university in fundamental research and the education of postgraduate students, Hustad explains, noting that since 70 per cent of PhD students in technology go on to start their careers in industry, “in this way, the level of competence in the industry increases”. He adds that NTNU researchers gain “better data” and their research has more “relevance” as a result of collaboration with SINTEF and industry.

Is the benefit to the university primarily in terms of publications and quality of research?

“It’s not only to do with publications, because we want to be relevant to the society,” argues Hustad. “This is a tool for a better society and also to transition to a green economy. It’s a way of transforming the knowledge that we develop into practice in industry.”

Røkke believes the link gives SINTEF valuable “access to talent”, including PhD students, as well as access to high-quality labs and equipment.

By bringing together top industrial and academic talent, the link has been key to SINTEF’s success as Norway’s biggest winner of funding in the European Union’s Framework Programmes for research, he adds. And publications arising from the link are important in terms of winning funding from the Norwegian government.

So why is SINTEF not simply part of NTNU?

SINTEF “was created to have this industrial link and [so] that you could do industrial research as a separate entity and not to mix the two administrative and management systems”, says Røkke.


Number of universities in in top 50 of world university rankings universities with the most industry collaborations

Graph: Number of universities in in top 50 of world university rankings universities with the most industry collaborations


Eindhoven University of Technology and Philips

Dutch technology company Philips is well known as the P in football club PSV Eindhoven, originally founded as a team for company employees. Less well known is its key contribution to the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE).

The public university was founded in 1956 “because of the need for highly educated engineers” at “companies like Philips”, says Frank Baaijens, TUE’s rector.

There is a “longstanding tradition of collaboration” with Philips since then, he adds. “We also have a fairly large number of professors that either have worked for Philips – I’m an example of that – or that [work at Philips and] have a part-time position at our university.”

The link puts TUE fourth in the table of universities with the highest proportions of research output generated in collaboration with a single industry partner, accounting for 4.1 per cent of its total publications.

In 2014, Philips split into two companies, Philips Lighting and Philips Healthcare. TUE’s link is focused on the latter company, whose products range from hospital equipment to electric razors.

Baaijens cites the use of data science in healthcare applications as an area where the university collaborates with Philips.

“For us [the collaboration] means that we have a better understanding of what the real-life challenges are…what the specific needs of the industry are and the individual scientific challenges they [Philips] would like to address,” he says. “It’s a very nice gateway to [take] some of the know-how we have and to translate that in real-life applications.”

Where research results are deemed commercially confidential, there is an intellectual property arrangement “so they [Phillips] can delay publication for a certain amount of time, which is finite”, adds Baaijens. “But after that we have freedom to publish our results. This is crucial in the relationship that we have.”​


Prototype Volvo car
Source: 
Getty

Chalmers University of Technology and Volvo companies

We have actually built our university in a systematic way to be able to collaborate with industry,” says Stefan Bengtsson, Chalmers president.

The university, named after William Chalmers, a director of the Swedish East India Company who established it as an “industrial school” in 1829, is divided into departments. But there are eight “areas of advance” in fields such as transport and energy that go “across the various departments”, explains Bengtsson. These not only connect researchers in different disciplines across the university but also form “a platform for collaboration with industry”, he continues.

Chalmers ranks sixth in the table of universities producing the highest proportions of their output in collaboration with industry, while its link with Volvo places it 18th for collaborations with individual companies.

However, in reality, this is a link with a number of Volvo companies, principally Chinese-owned Volvo Cars and the separate Volvo Trucks. Both companies are based in Gothenburg, like Chalmers.

The collaborative research covers areas such as more sustainable fuels, particularly for heavy vehicles, along with autonomous cars and electric vehicles.

Bengtsson says the autonomous car project (aimed at testing whether the vehicles improve safety and efficiency) will see university researchers involved in creating safe communications systems between the vehicles and the Cloud, as well as monitoring the “behaviour of the humans inside the car” (so perhaps reading that magazine is not a good idea).

University researchers also benefit from the electric Volvo buses that run between two of Chalmers’ campuses as part of the public transport system, allowing them to study “how batteries function in these kinds of environments, how the human beings are using this new kind of public transport system”, says Bengtsson.

He adds: “Our role is to do research, we publish results, we educate doctoral students. And the companies, of course, have their interests in developing their technology and products. But I think we’ve found a very good way of linking together these two very different objectives.” 

john.morgan@tesglobal.com


Group think: the most prolific university-corporate partnerships

Rank

University partner

Country

Corporate partner

Corporate partner's country

Total number of co‑authored papers

Percentage of corporate partner’s total output

Percentage of university partner’s total output

1

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Norway

SINTEF

Norway

1,711

48.86

9.11

2

China University of Petroleum

China

China National Petroleum

China

588

23.17

5.55

3

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

980

9.63

4.95

4

Eindhoven University of Technology

Netherlands

Philips Research

Netherlands

562

22.78

4.06

5

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

734

7.21

3.55

6

Pohang University of Science and Technology

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

386

3.79

3.42

7

Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

189

1.86

3.24

8

China University of Petroleum

China

China National Offshore Oil Corporation

Hong Kong

325

34.50

3.07

9

China University of Petroleum

China

Sinopec

China

303

18.36

2.86

10

Hanyang University

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

598

5.88

2.68

11

Pohang University of Science and Technology

South Korea

POSCO

South Korea

292

30.93

2.58

12

Seoul National University

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

1,204

11.83

2.08

13

KU Leuven

Belgium

Panasonic

Japan

967

34.30

2.02

14

Korea University

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

558

5.48

2.01

15

University of Gothenburg

Sweden

AstraZeneca

UK

421

4.45

1.97

16

China University of Geosciences

China

China National Petroleum

China

233

9.18

1.80

17

Yonsei University

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

645

6.34

1.72

18

Chalmers University of Technology

Sweden

Volvo

Sweden

194

46.86

1.58

19

Uppsala University

Sweden

AstraZeneca

UK

474

5.01

1.52

20

Karolinska Institute

Sweden

AstraZeneca

UK

453

4.79

1.29

21

University of Copenhagen

Denmark

Novo Nordisk

Denmark

623

26.20

1.19

22

Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Brazil

Petrobras SA

Brazil

271

28.35

1.18

=23

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Norway

Statoil

Norway

209

23.35

1.11

=23

Kyung Hee University

South Korea

Samsung

South Korea

209

2.05

1.11

25

University of Oslo

Norway

SINTEF

Norway

375

10.71

1.06

26

Wageningen University & Research

Netherlands

Unilever

Netherlands

204

8.61

0.91

27

Imperial College London

UK

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

459

4.40

0.74

28

University of Cambridge

UK

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

428

4.10

0.61

29

University of Copenhagen

Denmark

Lundbeck Corporation

Denmark

310

38.56

0.59

30

University of Manchester

UK

AstraZeneca

UK

262

2.77

0.57

31

University of Manchester

UK

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

247

2.37

0.54

32

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

US

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

238

2.28

0.50

33

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

US

General Atomics & Affilated Companies

US

228

13.51

0.49

34

Duke University

US

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

230

2.21

0.42

=35

Columbia University

US

International Business Machines (IBM)

US

263

3.28

0.41

=35

University of Pennsylvania

US

Pfizer

US

263

2.01

0.41

37

University of Oxford

UK

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

311

2.98

0.40

=38

Stanford University

US

Roche Holding

Switzerland

260

3.44

0.36

=38

Stanford University

US

International Business Machines (IBM)

US

258

3.22

0.36

=38

Duke University

US

Merck & Company

US

197

2.15

0.36

41

Imperial College London

UK

AstraZeneca

UK

209

2.21

0.34

42

University of Pennsylvania

US

Merck & Company

US

196

2.14

0.31

43

Harvard University

US

Novartis

Switzerland

421

5.41

0.29

44

University of Tokyo

Japan

Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation

Japan

210

5.92

0.27

=45

Harvard University

US

Pfizer

US

365

2.79

0.25

=45

Harvard University

US

Merck & Company

US

361

3.95

0.25

=47

Harvard University

US

GlaxoSmithKline

UK

358

3.43

0.24

=47

University of Oxford

UK

AstraZeneca

UK

187

1.98

0.24

49

Harvard University

US

Roche Holding

Switzerland

245

3.24

0.17

50

Harvard University

US

AstraZeneca

UK

218

2.30

0.15

Note: All data provided by Clarivate Analytics, based on the research articles and reviews indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection databases between 2007 and 2016. Metrics were calculated in the InCites analytics platform.


Better together: individual partnerships

Country

Total No. of universities in the top 50

No. of individual universities in the top 50

Total No. of companies
in the top 50

Total No. of individual companies in the top 50

Total No. of universities and companies

US

15

7

8

4

23

UK

7

5

14

2

21

South Korea

10

9

10

2

20

China

4

2

2

2

6

Norway

3

2

3

2

6

Sweden

4

4

1

1

5

Netherlands

2

2

2

2

4

Denmark

2

1

2

2

4

Japan

1

1

2

2

3

Switzerland

0

0

3

2

3


Appliance of science: the universities with the most industry collaborations 

Rank

Institution

Country

Number of
publications

Proportion of
university’s
publications that
are industry
collaborations

1

Pohang University of Science and Technology

South Korea

 13,545 

22.98

2

National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon (INSA Lyon)

France

 7,636 

18.01

3

China University of Petroleum

China

 10,607 

14.77

4

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Norway

 19,310 

11.03

5

University of East Anglia

UK

 12,443 

10.23

6

Chalmers University of Technology

Sweden

 12,658 

9.14

7

Eindhoven University of Technology

Netherlands

 14,206 

8.96

8

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)

South Korea

 30,406 

8.84

9

Institute of Cancer Research

UK

 6,338 

6.88

10

CentraleSupélec

France

 5,465 

6.18

11

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)

South Korea

 20,768 

6.05

12

Grenoble Institute of Technology

France

 13,249 

5.59

13

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Sweden

 20,029 

5.57

14

Technical University of Denmark

Denmark

 21,956 

5.54

15

KU Leuven

Belgium

 57,453 

5.49

16

University of Copenhagen

Denmark

 59,238 

5.48

17

Sandia National Laboratories

US

 8,388 

5.00

18

Budapest University of Technology and Economics

Hungary

 6,228 

4.98

19

Karolinska Institute

Sweden

 43,033 

4.87

=20

University of Gothenburg

Sweden

 23,070 

4.70

=20

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

US

 8,121 

4.70

22

Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Germany

 29,809 

4.47

23

Imperial College London

UK

 63,893 

4.40

24

University of Basel

Switzerland

 23,360 

4.39

25

Uppsala University

Sweden

 35,031 

4.34

=26

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

US

 56,768 

4.25

=26

National Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland

Finland

 7,133 

4.25

28

Purdue University

US

 21,278 

4.24

29

Carnegie Mellon University

US

 16,536 

4.21

30

Ulm University

Germany

 16,168 

4.18

31

RWTH Aachen University

Germany

 25,369 

4.17

32

Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology

South Korea

 5,833 

4.11

33

University of Tübingen

Germany

 29,669 

4.09

34

Hanyang University

South Korea

 22,424 

4.06

35

Semmelweis University

Hungary

 7,877 

4.05

36

Graz University of Technology

Austria

 6,255 

4.03

37

Seoul National University

South Korea

 61,449 

4.00

38

Université Lille 2 – Droite et Santé

France

 5,465 

3.99

39

University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

Germany

 26,882 

3.97

40

University of California, San Francisco

US

 52,337 

3.96

41

German Cancer Research Center

Germany

 11,788 

3.94

42

University of Southern Denmark

Denmark

 11,049 

3.93

43

University of Aix-Marseille

France

 37,546 

3.92

=44

University of California, San Diego

US

 60,003 

3.91

=44

Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar

Qatar

 11,972 

3.91

46

Princeton University

US

 29,280 

3.90

47

Medical University of Vienna

Austria

 17,652 

3.89

=48

Delft University of Technology

Netherlands

 22,407 

3.88

=48

Duke University

US

 56,587 

3.88

50

Stanford University

US

74,938

3.87

Note: The data amalgamate the various campuses of the China University of Petroleum, the China University of Geosciences and Sandia National Laboratories.

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