Finding the Fit in Industry-University Collaborations: Advice for Companies
Editor’s note: Today’s post was co-authored by Fuentek president Laura Schoppe and Richard W. Chylla, Ph.D., executive director of MSU Technologies, the technology transfer and commercialization office for Michigan State University. Schoppe and Chylla also co-authored a paper published in Research–Technology Management and presented a free webinar based on that paper.
Collaboration between well-matched partners is a synergistic way for a company to enter a clearly defined, adjacent market based on breakthrough technology to achieve higher growth. University and government labs across the United States collectively represent a potentially useful partner, given that they have capabilities, expertise, and intellectual property (IP) portfolios that support commercial products. And because many of them are keen to partner with industry, they have been simplifying their policies and offering new programs to facilitate collaboration.
Today’s blog post summarizes one such university program, and we provide specific advice for entering into discussions with potential collaborators… and knowing when it’s time to move on.
MSU Business-CONNECT and Master Agreements
The MSU Business-CONNECT office is staffed with business development specialists who act as a concierge service for companies that wish to engage with the university, be it for research, finding interns, looking for new technology, or hiring recent graduates. These specialists, who have spent large parts of their careers in industry, also negotiate the contracts with companies for service or sponsored research agreements (SRAs).
MSU has found the Master Agreement approach to collaboration especially effective. Such “blanket” agreements allow sponsors to provide funding over several years while allowing for IP treatment to vary in the individual projects. When a Master Agreement is in place:
- Both the university and the company have a shared interest in the success of the partnership over multiple projects and several years.
- Each side becomes familiar with the working processes of the other.
- Relationships are built between the company representative(s) and the university’s business development specialist.
- Both sides are more attentive to the needs of each other than they are under a single-project SRA.
In a recent example, faculty at MSU worked on a project for a major utility company under a Master Agreement. During the execution of the project, external changes in the marketplace made it imperative that the project timeline be accelerated. Because of the strong relationship that was developed over prior years between the company and the university:
- MSU understood that timing changes were frequently necessary in projects for this company.
- Faculty were informed of the potential for such changes when the project work plan was originally being developed.
Therefore, the project at MSU was able to be reshuffled and completed early to meet the company’s need.
This example demonstrates how a long-term relationship between a university and a company promotes greater understanding and leads to increased flexibility in both parties, improving the R&D process.
Discussions with Potential Collaborators
If your research reveals a specific faculty member conducting relevant research, begin by contacting that individual, preferably by telephone as well as email. However, if you are uncertain about whom to contact—or if the faculty researcher is being unresponsive—contact the institution’s office or department responsible for establishing collaborations with industry. This might be the Technology Transfer Office, the Industry Relations Office, the Office of Sponsored Research, etc. The staff in these offices may be helpful in identifying the relevant researcher(s) and helping faculty recognize the importance of industry collaborations, increasing their responsiveness.
The following preparations will help your initial conversations be productive:
- Express your technical need or area of interest where the institution’s expertise is sought. This includes describing the challenge using terminology that will be understood by a university/government researcher (i.e., avoid company- or industry-specific jargon).
- Be aware of any technical requirements or specifications that need to be addressed in the collaborative R&D (e.g., speed, precision, accuracy, functionality).
- Articulate the potential benefits of partnership, particularly the expertise, capabilities, and/or finances your company will be able to provide to the institution.
Your company can provide reassurances that the agreement is fair and reasonable by showing the value of the benefits offered to the university or government partner, such as:
- Access to company equipment
- Favorable publicity
- Positive economic impact through business expansion and/or hiring
This is particularly helpful at universities, where the balance between “be industry friendly” and “don’t sell out cheap” can be difficult to strike.
Questions to ask of the prospective university or government collaborator include:
- What are some of the key capabilities or technologies within your area of expertise that you feel overlap with our need? Can you provide relevant papers or other materials?
- What could you offer to the engagement if we were to enter into a partnership?
- Are there funding opportunities that you will be applying for where a partnership with a company might be beneficial?
- Do you need any information from us in order to determine your potential for working under an R&D partnership?
Signs That It Is Time to Move On
Successfully pursuing collaborations requires balancing tenacity/patience with a willingness to abandon a particular prospect in favor of another one, particularly if any of the following is happening.
Unwillingness to Discuss IP Rights
Although greater flexibility has been observed at many institutions, some universities are still reluctant to explore various possibilities. If the topic of IP rights seems to be creating an impasse, consider looking at other, more flexible institutions.
Inability to Align Schedules
If the timeframe that the company requires conflicts with the availability of the researcher, the collaboration likely should be abandoned.
Unresponsive or Indifferent Researchers
Other priorities might redirect a researcher’s interest away from collaboration. If the faculty member’s early enthusiasm in a partnership begins to wane, another researcher and/or another institution might be a better match for the company.
Limitations of “A-List” Players
Leading faculty and institutions are highly sought after and, therefore, are very selective about the work they do. Rather than struggle to get the attention of the top-tier players, who can afford to be choosy, companies may do better to seek out other researchers/institutions with sufficient qualifications.
We hope you find the insights offered here will help your company approach academic and federal institutions efficiently and effectively. These insights can be extrapolated into the licensing of technologies developed at these organizations. For more information, feel free to contact Laura Schoppe through the Fuentek website.