University-Industry Engagement Week

Fine-tune policies to better support student-industry collaborations

By David Schwartz
Published: April 13th, 2021

A detailed article on policies and practices surrounding student-industry collaborations appears in the April issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

What are the recognized best practices among university industry engagement offices when it comes to student-industry collaborations? How are contracting agreements structured? How are fees charged? How is IP handled?

The most accurate answer is “it depends.” It depends on whether the project is a capstone, or whether the student is participating in industry-sponsored research. It depends on whether undergraduate or graduate students are involved. And, of course, it depends on individual university policies.

“For us, it’s mostly a couple of different buckets,” shares Evan A. Facher, PhD, MBA, director of the Innovation Institute and vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh. “One is the more traditional capstone, the other occurs in the regular course of industry sponsored research where students would be involved. We treat both very differently.”

“We have undergraduate and graduate capstones,” adds Caroline G. Wood, executive director of corporate relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We also have a research semester, as well as graduate work on industry projects.”

Beyond that, notes Kevin Wozniak, MBA, RTTP, head of the Office of Corporate & International Contracting/Exchange Agreements at Georgia Tech, there are further distinctions based on the industry partner’s involvement. There may be a project for which the company simply provides advisors (someone to answer questions, offer guidance on the specifics of the projects), or a slightly larger contribution by the company in which it may provide funding. Each of these variations, he notes, are reflected in the policies regarding some of the aforementioned issues.

“On capstones, when we pair up a company with students it runs basically through the school itself,” says Facher. “Students are treated independently from the university. If they develop IP or need to do confidentiality agreements, they are treated as an individual and interact with the company separately. We try to provide guidance where we can, but it’s not necessarily a university technology. In educational activities, the students own the IP.”

However, he continues, when students are working on a research project, they are treated like faculty and staff. “In that case they typically get paid as a university employee who works in the lab,” he explains. “They get a salary, and anything from that funding is owned by the university, [as] that research is done in our lab setting.”

Regular industry-sponsored research, Facher continues, “falls under our IP policy covering technology invented by a university member engaged with sponsored research. But,” he emphasizes, “capstone is a completely different approach. At times it’s more complicated because when you have the students act on their own in that regard, it’s almost as if they’re individual, owned entities. We try to provide counsel to them and the faculty member whose class or program it is — that may be about what they need to be careful around, what can be promised or not, and so on. We help the faculty member, getting alignment with the company as to what their expectations are to come out of the project so there are no surprises for the student. We feel we have to be part of that third party connection so that there is an alternative [project] available if the student does not want to sign confidentiality agreements, and so forth.”

At Georgia Tech, adds Wozniak, industry contribution is an important differential when it comes to capstone projects. Where there is no financial contribution at all, he says, “there are absolutely no rights the company gets. It is a student course, it’s meant to be, and that’s all it’s going to be. The company should have no expectations, other than these are great opportunities to get to know the students and hopefully identify potential employees.”

A second scenario involves funding or other resources from the company through which the capstone is supported — in general, or in a specific project the company is involved with directly. In that instance, there are two possibilities. If it is a straight-up donation, then like any other donation there should be no strings attached to it, and it mirrors the first example. However, if the company is providing financial support for the project, and if they have an interest in obtaining rights to innovations coming out of the project, it is then treated as a sponsored research activity.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week