Top eight insider tips on industry-research collaborations

The art of making firm friends starts with making it easy for companies to say ‘yes’ to your approaches, say insiders. Plus the latest higher education appointments

October 16, 2014

Source: Alamy

Embrace industry: ‘be very upfront about what you can bring to the table, and be realistic in what you are offering’

“Don’t just ask for money” is the top tip for academics wanting to work with industry offered by Mark Craighead, head of business projects at the biotechnology firm Redx Pharma.

Simply asking for money to carry out research without thinking about what the company can get out of the collaboration is one of the common pitfalls for academics trying to engage with firms, he told Times Higher Education.

“You need to make it easy for the company to say ‘yes’,” he added. This could involve tempting them with an offer to look at compounds that could be of interest to them, or proposing that a student is seconded to work within the business for a period of time to transfer certain skills, Dr Craighead suggested.

“We look for where we can add value…We’ve never just given out money for people,” he said. Redx Pharma, which is based in Manchester and Liverpool, has grown from 10 to 180 employees over the past four years, and has had many successful collaborations with universities.

Researchers should “reach out” to companies that are working in areas that align with their work. “There is no harm in sending an email. Follow up as well if you do not get a response,” Dr Craighead added.

But before making that initial contact it is important to research the organisation.

“Know them and know the kinds of collaborations they have done in the past,” he recommended, adding that this information can usually be found on a company’s website. If the firm has been involved with studentships in the past, for example, it may be likely to do so again, he said.

Streamline the paperwork

Another area where it can be beneficial to focus energy is getting confidentiality agreements signed. This can be a “tortuous” part of any collaboration, Dr Craighead observed. The amount of time that Redx Pharma has spent discussing confidential disclosure agreements is “interminable”, he added.

Some universities have standard confidential disclosure agreements that they want businesses to sign, which means that industry collaborators have to take the “extra step” of processing the information.

“If you are trying to engage the company, make it as easy for them as possible,” he said, suggesting that if the university is happy with an agreement put forward by the company, it should accept it.

Being honest is another of his top tips: “Be very upfront about what you can bring to the table, and be realistic in what you are offering.” Remember that the person you engage with at any research-intensive business is likely to be familiar with academia, he said.

Similar rules apply for working with larger companies such as Dyson, which is currently running 20 projects with UK universities. These include work on robotics with Imperial College London and on fluid dynamics with the University of Cambridge. The company is spending £3.4 million on academic collaboration projects in 2014.

Owen Nicholson, external research programme manager at Dyson, said: “The best projects are the truly collaborative ones, where academia and industry are working together on projects that are of genuine interest to both parties.”

THE spoke to both Dr Craighead and Mr Nicholson after they appeared at the annual conference of Auril, the Association for University Research and Industry Links, in Manchester on 9 October.


University College London has announced three major appointments. Giles Thomas, formerly professor and director of the National Centre for Maritime Engineering and Hydrodynamics at the Australian Maritime College, University of Tasmania, has been made the British Maritime Technology chair of maritime engineering. Henrietta L. Moore joins as head of the new Institute for Global Prosperity. Professor Moore arrives from the University of Cambridge, where she was William Wyse chair of social anthropology. Geraint Rees, who was director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has been appointed dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Heriot-Watt University has made Frances Cairncross the new chair of its governing body. Ms Cairncross, currently rector of Exeter College, Oxford, takes up her position on 1 January 2015.

Alistair Sambell has been appointed vice-principal and deputy vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University. Professor Sambell was previously vice-principal (academic) at the institution.

Keith McLay has joined Canterbury Christ Church University as its new dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

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