Why you should consider university-industry collaboration and how to engage in one

Are you interested in collaborating with industry, but don't know where or how to start? This blog post has some great clues for you to kickstart the process.

5 min read
Why you should consider university-industry collaboration and how to engage in one

While many research projects are run from start to finish within university labs, plenty of additional benefits and opportunities can be unlocked by working with industry. Certain types of investigations are difficult or even impossible to run without researchers from the two sectors sharing resources. To help support the academic community find new pathways to drive positive impact from their research, we’ve put together a quick guide that overviews the benefits of working with industry to commercialise research, what this can mean for early career researchers (ECRs), and some tips on the best approach.

The most efficient and direct way that scientific findings can be translated into products that benefit our society is through collaboration between academia and industry, the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine being a prime example of this. Collaborations can take various forms to best suit the shape of the research. This can include testing or validating an early breakthrough, exploring new research avenues using different facilities or equipment, prototyping and scaling up - many of which wouldn’t be possible solely within an institute. A collaboration or placement with a company can provide access to new approaches for conducting research and the experience can be valuable in many ways career-wise, including the opportunity to make useful connections for future collaborations, commercial skills development, and others.

Much of the research done with industry leads to publication: In 2019, University 2 Business reported on a study which found that half of the journal articles from industry-based research groups in the USA were a result of university-industry collaborations, and that these elicited higher citation rates than those of university researchers alone. Possibly because working with industry to integrate a discovery into a real-world, everyday application or solution for society increases impact of the research. An industry collaboration could be the crucial factor for progressing a lab’s research and translating it into potential technology commercialisation for the benefit of society.

What’s more, a successful industry partnership could prove valuable for future research proposals or even direct industry funding for the lab, as having an industry partner with different yet complementary capabilities is a great way to create interesting and application-driven research proposals that can unlock new funding opportunities. Sponsorship of standalone PhD and postdoctoral projects is well known, along with long-term strategic partnerships, and fulfilling consultancy roles for researchers within industry or with cultural projects. However, commercially focused research also opens the door to funding opportunities that are jointly supported by research councils and industrial partners, such as the NSF’s Partnerships to Accelerate Technological Development. With all these benefits in mind, it’s no surprise that collaboration with industry is increasingly being encouraged by research councils (for example UKRI’s Innovate UK funding stream and research assessment frameworks such as the UK’s Knowledge Exchange Framework).

How do you initiate a collaboration with industry?

Most research-intensive universities and institutes have a technology transfer office (TTO, sometimes also called technology licensing office) that's responsible for protecting intellectual property developed within their university and commercialising it in a way that generates impact from the research and derives a financial return for the institute and the teams behind it. TTO staff are there to help manage patent applications, negotiate licensing deals and research agreements, create spin-out companies, market new technologies, and identify potential industrial partners.

At IN-PART we help TTOs from universities worldwide to connect their cutting-edge research with key industry decision-makers through our online matchmaking platform. Importantly, a survey we ran at the start of 2020 showed us that TTOs identify research from their university to showcase to industry mainly through project submissions from academics. This makes research commercialisation solely dependent on academics themselves. We also found a clear signal that TTOs want more engagement from early career researchers. While our survey didn't indicate exactly why, based on our interactions with TTOs we suspect that they’re seeing the opportunity in a new generation of researchers who are much more engaged with wanting to translate their research to benefit society. In fact, there are no rules preventing ECRs from initiating a conversation with their university’s TTO to gauge potential interest of companies into their project. This could lead to more of the university’s research getting the attention of industry.

Figure 1: IN-PART annual survey, January 2020, 64 respondents from TTOs in the UK, US, Europe, Australasia and Japan (multiple choice question).

So, in terms of what to do if you’re an ECR thinking about research commercialisation… Be proactive! Talk to your PI about incorporating commercialisation aims into your project to ensure you can be working towards them. Find your university’s TTO to learn more about commercialisation, and reach out to start a conversation with them about your work. Many TTOs offer training courses and funding to support researchers interested in developing their commercial skillset and knowledge of commercialisation.

The first step in working with a TTO is to submit a brief outline of your research and its potential applications. You should outline why you’re doing the research, what the aims and timeline of the project are, and provide some details of the potential outcomes in terms of their benefits or improvements on existing systems. TTOs are there to help with further analysis of market demand and with packaging all the required information to communicate the project to an industry audience when the time is right. Have a look around at the market area for your work - is there a gap your research can fill or a solution that it could deliver?

It is possible to pursue collaboration and commercialisation without the support of a TTO by utilising any industry connections within your academic or other networks, or reaching out to companies that your research group has a history of working with. Doing some market research, for example through Google, patent databases or via marketing research providers (who tend to charge for their service) can also help you to identify potential industry partners. But in this case, the challenge is identifying and contacting the right person in the company. This is why solutions such as IN-PART exist: to help researchers and universities quickly tap into a global network of R&D teams actively looking for new opportunities.

While forgoing the support and expertise of a TTO provides a greater financial return in the form of a bigger stake in the resulting project and intellectual property (IP), it requires time and expertise to independently manage contract negotiations, IP protection, and all the other activities involved in setting up a research agreement or partnership that a TTO would provide.

There’s no time like the present to start thinking about the real-world value and impacts of your research, and to take your first steps down that path by learning about technology transfer, engaging with your TTO, and building commercialisation objectives into your next research proposal.

Disclaimer: both authors of this blog post work at IN-PART, a company that serves as a matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration.

Sharon is a Research Officer at IN-PART, with a background in inflammatory lung disease research in collaboration with industry. Follow her on Twitter @SharonGilll

Ruth is a Content and Communications Officer at IN-PART, with a background in isotopic geochemistry research and science writing. Follow her on Twitter @RuthKirk_RH or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ruth-kirk-phd-1a262483/).

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