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The Anatomy of Strategic Industry-University Partnerships

By: , Posted on: July 11, 2018

Universities and industry alike are important drivers of innovation. Fundamental research in universities is laying the foundation for radical scientific and technological breakthroughs in fields as diverse as materials science, neuro- and biotechnologies, and artificial intelligence, among others.  Industry is equally shaping this revolution by putting these breakthrough technologies to work and engaging in research and development efforts of their own. Their effective cooperation will therefore be fundamental in assuring that the fourth industrial revolution will evolve in a way that supports and accelerates human progress rather than challenges it.

Successful collaborations between universities and companies are the drivers of innovation and one of the principal sources of our knowledge economy.  These collaborations can increase their successes if people recognize the implications of differences between university and commercial cultures, objectives, and timescales, and if they are aware of stumbling blocks within each of the participating organization as well as the legislative frame conditions.

The focus on innovation through university collaborations has led major companies to change their approaches to university relations (UR) from ad hoc and informal arrangements to strategic and formal relationships directed by their overall strategic innovation goals. While individual ad hoc collaborations on specific research questions – which are often also the scope of small and medium enterprises – are already challenging, such large-scale strategic programs require a high level of experience and dedication in order to be successful.

The specialized units (often in R&D departments) that orchestrate large strategic innovation programs with selected universities typically play crucial roles in aligning companies’ innovation strategies and local R&D projects. From a unique in-the-middle position they act as “catalysts” and “knowledge brokers” when identifying suitable topics.  They play key roles in defining projects, selecting partners, and dealing with intrinsic challenges in the collaboration process.  They offer invaluable expertise about IP rights, governance structures, long-term co-investments, and the mismatch of expectations, among other issues – with a global view but paying special attention to local differences.

Industry-university partnerships have proved vital to innovation, and although these partnerships can be challenging, careful choices and wise management around five success-factors leads to a systematic approach that unlocks value for both parties. These success factors for strategic industry-university collaboration include:

  1. Select the focus areas of your university partnerships in alignment with your business goals
  2. Select your primary university partners in a systematic way
  3. Select collaboration formats that match your focus areas and business goals
  4. Have dedicated people, processes and organization to support your university partnerships
  5. Regularly evaluate your university partnerships, using suitable key performance indicators

Most companies fail to follow good practices in at least one of the five areas. The reason is often that university collaborations are not prioritized in the company’s strategic processes. Often, the company’s way of dealing with universities has never been looked at on an organization-wide scale, and an overarching approach has never been defined in a systematic way. In some cases, certain people in the organization might be aware of improvement potential but lack a systematic way of identifying concrete measures and/or communicating them to upper management.

What does the future of university engagement look like? Large companies are currently using substantial resources on embedding themselves in regional innovation ecosystem (RIEs) like Kendall Square/MIT, Silicon Valley/Stanford, and Tel Aviv, just to mention a few. An innovation ecosystem cannot only be characterized by bilateral collaboration (governed by the master research agreement) between a large company and a research institution but by a much more diverse interaction with many more partners. We therefore see that additionally to joint research activities, companies sponsor innovation prizes, run hackathons, develop freemium business models (e.g., IBM’s Quantum Experience which provides free access to one of the world’s first quantum computers), and place people directly in the RIE to scout for new business ideas and/or talent.

Strategic Industry-University Partnerships: Success-Factors from Innovative Companies, edited by Lars Frølund and Max Riedel, unveils insights of experts from BMW, DuPont, Ferrovial, IBM, Novo Nordisk, Rolls-Royce, Schlumberger, and Siemens on managing partnerships with universities. This volume captures observations of leading international corporations without omitting university views. It can serve all partners in alliances as a guide to strengthening their organizations.

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