University & industry collaboration: issues and opportunities

Posted on 9 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

Dr Marcus Perkmann of Imperial College London discusses collaboration performance measurements

Links between universities and industry are important for stimulating innovation within the wider economy. Much emphasis has been on the commercialisation of universities’ intellectual property, via licensing or spin-off companies. While these mechanisms are relevant, there are a range of other links between universities and industry that play an important role. In fact, the income of UK universities from contract research and consulting is about 20 times the income from intellectual property. This demonstrates the value industry puts on collaborating with university researchers. It also demonstrates that the view of the university as an ivory-tower is largely a myth, as large numbers of academics regularly interact with ‘users’ in different ways.

Increasingly, firms are attempting to move from small-scale and ad-hoc collaboration to a more strategic approach to work with universities. This allows them to access state-of-the art knowledge, and also leverage public research funds. Examples of large centres include the Rio Tinto Centre at Imperial, the Systems Engineering Innovation Centre at Loughborough and the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics at Cambridge. Rolls Royce is working with all three universities via their University Technology Centres programme.

In our research we have looked at what makes such collaboration successful and propose a new set of tools – success maps – for assessment. A first big issue concerns the cultural differences between academia and industry. Successful initiatives manage to build into the incentives of the university researchers involved. We have surveyed a large number of academics, and the results suggest that academics work with industry primarily because it advances their research. Only a minority of academics – although this is the important sub-group of academic entrepreneurs – works with industry because they are motivated by financial gain.

This means collaborative projects should contain both a commercial and an academic aspect to satisfy the incentives of both partners involved. Firms cannot necessarily expect academics to conduct outsourced research delivered in short time frames. Rather, the value of having academics involved is often in testing out new ideas and using academic laboratories as ‘skunk works’ for projects that are not yet mainstream but potentially highly promising. Firms also work with universities to participate in the development of specific areas of science and technology.

The second big issue concerns intellectual property. In general, the more of the cost of a collaboration is born by the industrial partners, the more likely any intellectual property arising from the collaboration will be controlled by them. Academics are often happy with these arrangements as long as there are opportunities for academic exploitation, i.e. publication. If public funding is provided, the issue is more complicated and universities legitimately seek to claim some ownership.

However, firms increasingly see the administrative burden and cost of intellectual property protection as a major barrier for university collaboration. There are some experiments where companies and universities experiment with ‘open intellectual property regimes’. A case study of the Structural Genomics Consortium, part-funded by pharmaceutical companies, illustrated how industry can benefit from academic work without necessarily owning property rights to all the outputs generated. These experiments are currently confined to precompetitive research and it remains to be seen how these collaborations develop. What they suggest, however, is that it is often difficult to put monetary value on basic research, and hence the costs and inconvenience of patenting has to be traded off with the benefits of actually having research results that may benefit both the development of science and innovation.

Dr. Markus Perkmann, Imperial College London, [email protected]