Building valuable relationships with leading universities

Building Valuable Relationships With Leading Universities

With over $70bn in sales generated from products developed from the work of academic scientists at just 200 US institutions, it’s no surprise that companies are increasingly turning to academia to access these leading scientific and engineering minds for their R&D efforts. Partnering with universities can help companies cut costs and accelerate internal R&D, bringing exciting new products to market faster.

When these strategic partnerships go well, they combine the innovation-driven environment of the corporation with the discovery-driven culture of the university. With that being said, there are fundamental differences between academia and corporations which can present challenges when building industry-university partnerships.

In this report, we’ll address these differences and show you how to:

  • Build a long-term relationship that benefits both parties.

Academic scientists are clever people with enormous knowledge in their chosen areas of specialization and they frequently come up with exciting new technologies. With this report, we hope to bridge the industry-university gap and provide useful insights for dealing with these institutions.

Arrogant? Uncommercial? Not if you approach things the right way…

Over the years we at Innovation DB have spent helping people to find academic scientists with potentially commercially interesting research, we have heard the same comments many times…

Academics are anecdotally said to be most interested in their own research, whether it has any practical use or application. It may surprise you, given some high-profile counter examples, to find out that in fact the figures support this view, with research in the UK, for example, carried out by the principal funding body there, HEFCE, showing that 90% of academics prefer not to engage with business if at all possible. And about half do not even know where to find their tech transfer office. (It still makes me chuckle to remember that I once had a professor jump out of his chair in one meetings of the faculty board of which I am member at Oxford, simply because I had asked what the business-case was for a potential funding-stream. “You can’t use the word ‘business’!” he exclaimed…)

Academics are also generally thought to be difficult to deal with, and for two main reasons:

  • First, they may over-estimate the value of their idea in the commercial context, underestimating the value added by all the commercial development and market-orientated work which turns an idea into a successful product.
    • This is understandable when you remember that they operate in a world where well-formulated ideas are the entire currency of success. They come up with an idea, then write it down. Job done! This realisation may not make it any easier to convince an academic of the true value of an idea, but it provides the starting point: you will need to help them see what is involved in getting an idea to market first, so they do not think you are trying to rob them, and then make them understand what the idea is worth to them without your input, that is (usually) nothing at all.
  • Second, academics may not want to stop their research in other areas of interest to them, in order to focus on the development of an idea that is promising commercially.
    • If you are unlucky, you may have to deal with both – scientists who over-estimate the value of their idea and are now working on something else, leaving the idea in only a semi-useful form. You will need to get them excited about the original idea and its potential before you can move forward.

However, it is worth the effort

  • Academics come up with exciting new technologies
    • These ideas can be powerful, some incrementally, some transformative, many thought-provoking and valuable for showing a vision of future products that may be developed in various ways
  • Academics and their university support staff often underestimate the value of their IP
    • According to AUTM, the US university network, the value gained from IP by universities is only about 5% of the value achieved with the universities’ IP in the market. AUTM reckons that about $3.5bn is achieved by universities in the US, while the final value in the market is closer to $70bn.
    • So those scientists who overestimate the value of their IP, there are many more who do not understand what it really could be worth and will give you a very good deal.

Engaging the scientists

So then, how do you work with these interesting, but occasional tricky characters? Are there any basic building-blocks that can be used to build a solid working structure with academic scientists?

It’s the science, stupid!

Everything starts with a shared excitement about the science. The academics are excited about the science because they have chosen a life where science is the core of what they do, choosing at an early point in their career to forgo likely greater financial gains for a life where their curiosity can be indulged. They have also, of course, excelled in academic study and are comfortable there, whereas the commercial world may well be unfamiliar and off-putting, making them reluctant to leave their comfort zone.

So, meeting the scientists in their milieu is important, but not the only (or even main) point. You should be excited in the science because it has the potential to enable brilliant new products. You should understand enough of the science to see what it can do for your company. In fact, if you don’t find the science exciting, you really should let someone else speak to the academics.

Being ‘sciency’ together

Since this is the starting point, a science-based relationship is the best route forward, which means thinking hard about supporting research into areas that show real promise for your organisation, not simply hoping that a ready-made solution may be sitting waiting for you (although this does happen on occasion). Depending on the situation, help in kind works even better than straightforward funding of research, as this ensures that the academic really is interested in what you are interested in, and Is not just using your funding because the grants have run out.

Finding a way to support scientists’ desire to be involved in excellent science is the number one factor in building a positive relationship. And, of course, if they have a strongly motivated group working on excellent science in an area you are interested in, the chances are higher that they will produce something of real value to you and your company.

A nice example of this is the J&J Labs in Trinity College Dublin, where 3-D printing facilities have been set up so that researchers can construct frames for growing living tissue and related bioassays, see this article.

A tango takes two

In a relationship there are two parties (or more) and, of course, academics have their gripes about business too. There are some, often exaggerated but still valid, examples of companies apparently stealing ideas from academics and never properly compensating them, at least as it looks from the academic’s point of view, or of a change in strategy in a company meaning that lines of research are shut down at short notice, leaving academics and their Ph.D students or Post-Docs in the lurch.

As a result, and as in life generally, building trust is the central element of a productive relationship that leads to long-term gains for both parties. This means putting in some time early on, visiting and chatting. It is helped by some simple good will gestures, such as sharing useful resources or relevant research results. It will most likely involve simply enjoying your time exploring the science and letting this show, so that any ‘business bogeyman’ images are dispelled.

In short, it means acting like a partner, not a buyer.

All of this adds up to a commitment that takes time. Running a number of small projects with a variety of institutions is most likely the best way to identify scientists that you can work with effectively, re-investing with those that work out well, which in turn creates a positive reinforcement loop where the academic is likely to bring others in the group that fit the areas of interest to you, as one of the increasingly important funders of their work.

There will be times when a much shorter-term approach will be successful, but most value is extracted when a company works with an academic group over time, in a mutually beneficial way. The long-term relationship of GSK at Dundee is a good example, as is the huge investment at Berkeley made by BP, or that made by lighting manufacturer Osram at the University of Augsburg.

If you would like to see how to find a suitable academic partner, then take a look at our global technologies database to get started.

Written by Dr Gerald Law, CEO of Innovation DB

Innovation DB provides a global database of academic technologies with commercial potential, currently listing over 600,000 technologies, from about 5,000 institutions and universities, in more than 200 countries.

We are the trusted partner of blue-chip multinationals from many sectors, but also Venture Capitalists, mid-size and small R&D intensive companies and technology consulting firms.

Access the best scientific & engineering minds in academia.

Learn how to bridge the corporate-academia gap and build long-term relationships that cut costs, accelerate R&D, and bring products to market faster.