An Industry Perspective for Academic Researchers and Innovators
When things go well in industry-university collaborations, it’s a classic win-win. Businesses looking to develop a technology get access to expert researchers with state-of-the-art labs and facilities, as well as promising students that often make great future hires. Universities looking to build their reputations get to provide students with real-world experience turning ideas into products that can benefit society, while giving researchers access to commercial opportunities and students a chance to show their talents to prospective employers.
As a senior research fellow who manages external partnerships for medical device maker Boston Scientific, Mark Boden has seen just how fruitful these collaborations can be for both sides. “Universities are understanding that they can have better students coming out of their programs if they partner with industry,” notes Boden, who recently took part in an OPEN 2018 panel, Driving Innovation through University-Industry Collaboration. “And it is enabling us to identify and produce products that we wouldn’t be able to do solely internally. It also builds our brand recognition with the universities, with the professors and the students, and it’s enabling us to assess new hires for a fit.”
But Boden has also seen industry-university collaborations falter, often from issues that could have been avoided. As with any process of creative teamwork, he notes, success requires understanding what your partner is trying to achieve and working to support the relationship. Here, he provides his industry insider perspective to would-be collaborators on ways to make that happen.
Recognize that industry rules are different.
Industry has a culture of collaboration across disciplines that may initially seem foreign to academic researchers, notes Boden. “You often see collaboration between various schools working on the same type of research, but academics involved in pure research generally don’t have experience collaborating across disciplines,” he explains.
Industry also works at a different pace than academia. “As opposed to getting the right experiment, you are focused on getting the right experiment within a certain timeline, and that brings a different sense of urgency to the research,” Boden notes. And then once you have those results, industry may not evaluate them as an academic might. “Just because you have the greatest technology in the world, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead to the greatest product. There are a lot of pieces to understanding what a good product is, as opposed to what good research is—what the market size is for your product, what the timeline is, what the competitors are doing, and so on.”
Be flexible when engaging with industry.
As with other forms of partnerships, sustaining industry-university collaborations requires give and take, beginning with legal agreements. “Often a university will say, this is the way we do it,” notes Boden. “But in industry, every project is different, so there has to be some flexibility in how you approach the project.”
One area in particular that can lead to frustration is the process of negotiating agreements. A confidential disclosure agreement (CDA), for example, is an important document that protects confidentiality but there are times when signing one very early in the process can cause issues. “It limits the number of people who can look at the technology and give it thumbs up or thumbs down for whether or not it’s a fit for us,” Boden explains. It may be preferable in certain cases to consider whether an initial assessment can be made on a non-confidential basis. Other contract delays can also be deal breakers for potential industry-university collaborations. “Some universities struggle with the process. They have a large number of people involved, and that can lead to months-long delays in getting a simple CDA signed and even longer for a sponsored research agreement.”
On the positive side, Boden says that he is seeing more universities willing to meet industry halfway and put some skin in the game. “Rather than just turning to industry solely for funding, they are saying, ‘We have an accelerator. We think this is a fantastic technology that’s going to apply perfectly to your next generation device, so we are going to put $50,000 into this. And we might match those funds, or say, ‘That’s fantastic, here’s what we’d like to see with that $50,000. If you develop it to a certain stage, then we could get excited about investing.’”
Plan your ask.
When you approach any industry partner, advises Boden, know what you want to get out of that engagement, what you are going to share, and what you are going to give to make that relationship work. Academics will often come to Boston Scientific with what they say is a great technology and ask if the company wants it. “It’s often most productive when they come to us and say, ‘We have a great technology, can I work with you to understand how it would be useful in one of your products?’ Or maybe they do just want cash, and it’s good to be clear about that. It’s extremely valuable to us to understand what the ask is, and what they’d be willing to do to get from where they are to where industry is willing to make an investment.”
Have your own story ready, but be willing to listen.
Academics should think about industry-university collaborations from a business standpoint and be able to say why the innovation they are bringing to the table is valuable, says Boden. “What would you use it for? How would you use it? Why is it more valuable than what we already have?” And be ready for feedback that may take you in another direction. “You might have your heart set on developing a certain product with your technology but if industry comes back with constructive feedback, be willing to listen,” says Boden.
And be open to ideas from your university’s technology transfer office as well. “I’ve seen conflicts between professors and tech transfer offices because the professor thinks there’s a certain value associated with their technology, but they haven’t gone through that whole process. They might know that it’s a tenfold improvement over what was there in the past, but if they haven’t figured out that you can’t really manufacture it, for example, or that the materials are not biocompatible, they’ll disagree with the tech transfer office. And those are people who have either been in industry or part of startups, so they understand what you need and what industry is looking for.”
Find a champion within the industry.
Having a personal contact in the industry willing to advocate for your idea internally is often critical in working with large corporations, says Boden. “You might have a product that you are developing, and you think it may be a perfect fit for a corporation. Find the person within the corporation who is going to champion your product, someone who is then going to say, ‘Yeah, I buy into this. Here are the things I need to see.’ In addition, that person will also be going into the corporation and saying, ‘Listen, I think this person is onto something.’” Boden notes that without that kind of internal champion, it can take months or even years before a company is ready to invest in an idea.
How do you find that person? “You might have to probe multiple points,” says Boden. “Some companies have labs set up around the country, often co-located on campuses. Most companies now have technology groups, like the one I am a part of. If you are a professor working on technology, you can talk to R&D people at conferences. They may not be the right sponsor, but they can connect you. Ask them, who is the right person? How do you handle ideas from external people? How do I go about finding that right champion? It’s a perfectly valid question to ask.”
By thinking like a business person, staying flexible, understanding the needs of your potential partners, being open to feedback, and finding that champion, industry-university collaborations can become more than just possible—they can be the beginning of a long-term win-win relationship.
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