Business-University research: Improving interactions between individuals

Business-University research: Improving interactions between individuals

July 31, 2006

There has been a myriad of studies conducted on research collaborations—public-private partnerships in particular. In its 7th Annual Innovation Report, the Conference Board addresses the drivers and barriers between individuals in business and academe.

We believe that such collaborations are fundamental to improved innovation-based commerce in Canada. Indeed, our Leaders’ Roundtable on Commercialization (a group of 50 CEOs, Deputy Ministers and Presidents from academe) suggests that Canada should strive for nothing less than a global-first ranking with regard to business investment in research in higher education.

The objectives of this study are to identify the practices that underlie successful collaborative projects—and warn would-be collaborators of the potential pitfalls. To that end, the Conference Board interviewed 67 researchers who have led collaborative research projects.

Key Findings

The benefits of collaboration are broad
Many think of the benefits of collaboration in terms of the success of the specific project, the intellectual property produced and the number of new companies created. But there are many other benefits stemming from collaboration that deserve as much, if not more, attention.

Specific benefits to university researchers include:

  • the development of new academic fields and programs;
  • more interaction between students and industry—often resulting in employment;
  • exposure to a range of different perspectives;
  • access to physical materials, audiences and facilities that are otherwise impossible to reach.

Specific benefits to businesses include:

  • improvement of their visibility and reputation (which is increasingly important in fields like biotechnology where the demand for talent globally is becoming more competitive);
  • upgrading of their scientific and research capabilities by working with world-class researchers;
  • identification of new business opportunities based on collaborative research.

There are also benefits that are shared by both sides of the collaboration, including the development of leading-edge knowledge, access to talent, career mobility and a growth in confidence.

Differing perspectives are important
Many have argued that collaboration between industry and universities is hampered by fundamental differences in motivation, perspective and culture. However, the interviewees reported that these differences are more of a benefit than a detriment. New and different perspectives were considered critical elements of the projects.

Students are key
On the academic side of the collaboration, the bulk of the work is typically conducted by students—undergraduates, graduate students or post-doctoral students. This has a number of implications. First, it means that businesses must think of their research projects in terms of what students are able to accomplish—naturally under the guidance and direction of their research advisor. It also means that the lead researcher must be able to effectively attract, retain and manage these students during multi-year projects—by all accounts a difficult as well as a critical task. Providing opportunities for today’s students to have access to, and be involved with, major companies engaged in leading-edge research will help to build the critical capabilities of Canada’s future labour force.

There is a lack of clarity related to intellectual property, overhead costs and contracts
Interviewees from both businesses and universities indicate that they are confused about many of the rules governing collaboration—some refer to it as an “institutional fog.” For some this is a minor concern, but the majority of interviewees consider it a serious impediment to collaboration. Lifting the fog may help to foster more collaboration between universities and industry and, more importantly, may improve the effectiveness and ease of collaboration.

Opportunities for Action

Help publicly funded researchers manage students
Students are critical in collaborations. The inability to select students capable of delivering the necessary results or to keep students involved in multi-year projects can result in major setbacks for collaborative research projects. Yet little support is provided to publicly funded researchers in the selection and management of this critical resource. Providing university research professors with tools and resources that will help them identify not only which students have the required technical capabilities, but which students will thrive in a collaborative context may help substantially.

Engage corporate executives as collaboration champions
Projects without executive-level support become more vulnerable when difficulties arise. In universities, these champions could be deans, vice-presidents or—if the projects are large enough—the president. In companies, champions could be general managers, vice-presidents, presidents or CEOs. When executive-level champions clearly understand the project and its objectives, they are able to make it a priority and give it the support it needs to succeed. Champions can address bureaucratic obstacles, organizational challenges and other forms of resistance. One way to establish these projects as priorities is to ensure the entire organization is familiar with the work and its level of importance.

Improve the clarity of university rules and regulations
Many industry and academic collaborators reported that they were confused by current rules related to intellectual property management, licensing and overhead costs. Ongoing efforts to improve clarity in these areas and to make interactions between industry and academia both easier and faster should be considered. Initiatives like that of the Leaders’ Roundtable on Commercialization are pursuing these issues already and should be considered as potential sources of insight in this area.

Provide tax incentives to businesses collaborating with university researchers
In addition to providing matching funds for research, the federal government could provide tax credits to businesses that invest in collaborative research projects with universities. Incentives could be variable based on the levels of investment (to encourage business spending on R&D) or on the number of consecutive years of collaboration (to encourage the deepening of relationships).

Brian M. Guthrie is the Executive Director—Networks, Innovation & Knowledge Management, at the Conference Board of Canada.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.