Universities and companies bridge the gap to build collaborations benefiting all

The mission of a university may differ from that of a company. In recent years, however, mutual benefits have become apparent to both. Universities offer their knowledge, expertise, and access to students, while businesses offer funding as well as real-world business experience and contacts.

Both universities and private companies conduct high-level technological R&D. Traditionally, however, their reasons for doing so have differed. Universities mainly pursue research to reveal new knowledge, and a company’s ultimate goal is profit. Two factors are bringing them closer together: universities have become more entrepreneurial in their outlook, and companies now have a greater appreciation for the expertise of academic researchers and how that can contribute to their business success. And, today, collaboration is crucial to successfully bring new research findings into competitive markets.

“Never the twain shall meet”

Although the history of university-corporate partnership stretches back over a hundred years, there remains a perception that differing core values preclude a cooperation that mutually benefits both sides. In short, a researcher wants to share findings with the public, and a company wants to share marketable products with consumers.

Yet a closer look at the comparison reveals more overlap than differences. While universities do focus on education and new knowledge, increasingly companies provide the bridge to help transform new breakthroughs into things that people can actually use. Once removed from the academic bubble, new discoveries and innovative technologies flourish.

The key to building a successful cooperation between university and company lies in a mutual respect for each player’s area of expertise. It’s also important to come to an understanding early on about the parameters and goals of the research undertaken on the academic side and how the results will be shared and used on the corporate side.

Two sets of hands are better than one

Behind the desire to build healthy university-company collaborations lies the fact that there are countless challenges to be tackled in the modern world – whether in medicine, new technology, or science. Quite simply, it’s time to pool resources.

In the past, universities have solicited corporate donations or sponsored scholarships from the private sector in a kind of piecemeal way: researcher by researcher, project by project. Or corporations have contracted research work to help with, for example, licensing patents. This model posed minimal risk for both parties but was quite limited in scope.

Today, the increasing competition for knowledge demands that the two sectors expand on their collaboration. The transaction-based research-for-hire model needs to evolve into a long-term partnership, and, now, we see new models for partnerships.

Models of partnership

Today, academic research tends toward an interdisciplinary approach. By creating facilities based around a particular area of research and shared across departments and disciplines, the university is more successful in attracting potential partners in private industry interested in collaborative, highly focused, long-term research.

Another model, the business incubator, is a recent catchword on the university-company collaboration scene. This on-campus residence for a company allows industry partners to take an active role in university research and also gives students access to the professional world, helping them prepare for the next step after their studies.

This model, also called an accelerator, frequently provides a launching pad for start-ups or spin-off companies. The new company, seeded in the university setting, then maintains its link with the academic world, building a whole new layer of cooperation which grows and develops.

Getting off to a good start

Increasingly, long-term strategic alliances in a specific area of study are becoming the norm. But how to create a partnership that lasts? Finding the right people is always a good start. Both sides need to foster leaders capable of crossing the gap and building ties between the corporate and university worlds.

Companies will look for a so-called “Entrepreneur in Residence” (EIR) – the go-to person in a field of research with a great deal of experience and a successful track record in delivering marketable results. Universities will look for partners who understand that its bottom line is not always about profits and deliver the greatest impact on their results.

The Engineering Department of the University of Northampton in the UK, for example, collaborates with TK Elevator to research modelling, vibrations, and air flows. Often, department managers and project leaders are invited to give talks on practical applications or on transferring theory and new findings into an industry setting. A similar cooperation exists with Georgia Tech in the USA.

Why collaboration is the future

Collaboration – especially between universities and companies – will become increasingly important in the future. Factors such as fewer financial resources, competition from emerging economies, and increasingly complex technological developments make the landscape simply too volatile to go it alone.

Companies which don’t build bridges to the university sector will miss out on accessing ground-breaking research and marketable new findings. In addition, they will be out of touch with the students who will potentially turn into young professionals and bring a wealth of new knowledge into their company.

The university world now sees the benefits of looking beyond the theoretical and taking an active role in overseeing the transfer of new knowledge into practical applications. So instead of safeguarding research, they are moving to become custodians of collaborations with companies that use their market expertise to bring new findings to the public in practical applications.

Image Credits:
Tech Tower, photo by Brooke Novak, taken from Wikimedia Commons
University of Otago, photo by Ulrich Lange, taken from Wikimedia Commons