Industry-Sponsored Research Week
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Maximize the impact of centers and institutes on partnership opportunities

By David Schwartz
Published: April 10th, 2018

The specialty centers and institutes that dot — sometimes dominate — the research enterprise landscape at many universities are seeing their profiles rise and their influence expand as their host institutions pivot to a fuller focus on industry-academia collaboration. They’re already key bridges to sponsored research activity, they house many of the high-profile researchers that corporate partners often look for — and they’ve become essential building blocks in interdisciplinary research programs. But most of these centers and institutes were not created for pursuing private industry partnerships, and they may be administratively difficult to integrate with university-wide efforts to attract corporate sponsors.

“I think at a lot of schools, these things grow where seeds have landed, not in organized furrows,” notes Michael G. Szarka, PhD, director of research partnerships in the University of Waterloo Office of Research. “Most universities have policies for establishing them, but they tend to be pretty loose.” That can benefit the researchers who often play a key role in creating them, but Szarka points out that “there can be real confusion from a PR point of view, with some of the well-funded Institutes doing their own communications and lobbying.”

He adds: “On the other hand, the institutes can be really valuable from a marketing standpoint, as they are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s great to be able to talk to an auto company about your automotive institute or a bank about your cybersecurity institute instead of just individual professors.” Indeed, Szarka reports that the UWateroo vice president for research “has recently created a council to include the directors of the key institutes, which meets along with all the associate deans of research.” Those institutes are the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research and the Waterloo Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, plus the Centre for Applied Cryptographic Research.

“The idea is that the institutes are key to promoting interdisciplinary study, and that has been defined as a priority at Waterloo,” Szarka explains. “So putting them into the discussion with the faculties is of both symbolic and practical importance.” The council, he notes, “is an expansion of the normal regular meetings the VPR runs that include all the associate deans of research — to include the institute directors for part of the meetings as a recognition of their importance, especially for interdisciplinary research.”

One of the centers at Montana State University, Bozeman, is the Center for Biofilm Engineering, an NSF Engineering Research Center headed by research professor and industrial coordinator Paul Sturman, PhD — and it’s focused sharply on industry partnerships. Sturman reports that “MSU has several other research centers and institutes, but to my knowledge none have robust, ongoing industrial partnership programs as does the CBE.”

Its Corporate Affiliates Program (CAP), called the CBE Industrial Associate Program, is, as opposed to “being” the research entity, simply “one funding mechanism, along with other grants and income sources,” he adds. “In our case, the Center and the CAP are closely affiliated, where the industry members of the CAP help to decide what research to pursue.”

He adds: “Many of our industry sponsors contribute both annual membership dues, which are required, and specific project sponsorship, which is optional. There are other membership benefits, too, including funding research and testing projects at a discounted rate. The advantages of directly funding project work at the CBE include complete confidentiality and project direction by scientists and engineers at the top of biofilm investigation.” And, he emphasizes, “CBE offers Industrial Associate members no-cost participation in small testing projects of their choosing, and an opportunity to have a topnotch student or CBE staff member work on a specific problem.”

A detailed article on the role of institutes and centers in gaining industry sponsorships appears in the March issue of Industry-Sponsored Research Management. To subscribe and access the full article, along with all archived articles filled with best practices and success strategies for building corporate partnerships, CLICK HERE.   

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