Fuentek's Tech Transfer Blog

Forming R&D Partnerships: 8 Keys to Success

Karen Hiser’s recent post about qualifying prospects in order to get to a licensing deal was also reminiscent of our experiences with helping Fuentek clients get to collaborative R&D partnership deals. Although in many ways these deal-making processes overlap, things really do take a much different shape when you’re talking about collaborative R&D. Why? Because licensing ultimately is a relay race where there is a handoff, while partnering is a three-legged race where you cross the finish line together. (We’re talking about legs a lot these days, aren’t we!)

Here’s what we’ve learned over several years of helping organizations form collaborative R&D relationships.

1. There has to be mutual interest at the top and a willingness to explore being together. The management-level decision makers need to agree that they are interested in partnering. That buy-in at the top is essential. (See #5 below about bench-level buy-in.)

2. Think about what you want first. In figuring out the focus of a potential partnership, each party should ask itself: “What are our strategic priorities and where are we willing to invest our resources?” Don’t worry yet about whether those priorities match up with the potential partner. If the partnership you create does not satisfy your own needs, then it is partnering for partnering’s sake and is doomed to fail and worse yet waste valuable resources (time and money) pursuing research that is not aligned with your organizations strategic direction.

3. Present your priorities and needs in terms the other will appreciate. Explain where the other party can contribute to your priorities (why do you want to partner with them?) as well as the strengths you can offer to address the other’s priorities (why should they want to partner with you?). By identifying the larger needs where each believes the other can contribute, the potential partners can see where there is overlap.

4. If priorities overlap, then brace yourself to work hard to find the sweet-spot. Identifying a specific project to work together in a partnership for mutual benefit is challenging. Applying jointly for a funding opportunity makes it easier. It forces you to develop a statement of work (SOW) that specifies the goals and purpose of working together, what will be achieved, who is going to do which tasks, what the time frame is, and what the costs are of that work and what resources are needed. Then again, you can (and should!) develop a 1- or 2-page SOW even if there is no grant to go after.

5. Have the right people talk to each other at the right time. Early on, the management from the two parties need to talk to each other (see #1 above). But as things progress, bring together the potential partners’ scientists, engineers, and innovators—those who are on the front lines of doing the actual work of the partnership. They are in the best position to hammer out the specifics of the SOW and will be more likely engaged and supportive of the project if they had a hand in working out the tasks and goals. In fact, if you don’t get their buy-in, the project is almost certainly doomed. (So many ways to torpedo it without anyone being the wiser.)

6. It’s okay to start small. The first time you work together as partners does not have to be an earth-shattering project. Most people don’t get married on their first date. Think of it as taking the partnership on a test drive, doing a few small projects together to make sure you truly are a match. Note that this concept can be difficult to sell internally. Some might fear that they are “settling” for a minor-impact project and losing the opportunity to play on a major-impact project. We believe the reverse is true. People like working with those that they have developed a trusting relationship. Starting small is an excellent way to build that trust. Once you’ve pulled off the smaller project, then you’ll be ready when the bigger project arises.

7. Be willing to walk away. Patience and persistence are essential qualities for partnership development. But just as important is knowing when to give up and being able to walk away gracefully. Stopping partnership negotiations can be difficult, especially when you really want to partner with each other. So instead of thinking of it as an “I want to break up” situation, consider it a “The timing isn’t right currently, so we can’t be together now but maybe someday we can.” It’s okay to be just friends!

8. Consider using an intermediary. Okay, we may be a little biased on this point, but truly we have found that being an objective third-party (albeit representing our client’s interests) has allowed Fuentek to effectively facilitate partnership negotiations. Part of this stems from our being able to understand the business aspects of partnership as well as the technical angles of collaborative R&D. Being in the middle helps us to see both parties’ perspectives and identify innovative ways to overcome the barriers to partnering as well as to recognize when it just ain’t gonna happen.

What are your lessons learned from forming collaborative R&D partnerships? What challenges have you experienced? Use our Contact Us page to send us your experiences.