Tech Transfer Central
University-Industry Engagement Advisor

Prestige, size, and location no longer restrict university-industry collaboration

Dr. Ruth Kirk
Communications & Content Officer

This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

Neither the prestige, size, or location of a university or a company are prohibitive any longer for university-industry collaborations. In our annual 2021 survey of the industry engagement and R&D communities, we found that these factors are considered by only a minority of teams when starting new partnerships. In this article, we aim to address why that is the case and what factors corporate engagement offices and R&D professionals do take into account when setting up new university-industry collaborations.

For industry engagement professionals in universities and R&D decision-makers in industry, finding the right partner to establish a collaboration holds many challenges. There are a variety of factors that must be considered. In our survey, conducted at the beginning of 2021, one of the questions we asked our community was what are the most important factors that you consider when deciding to work with a new academic or industry partner?

For the R&D community, the prestige, location and size of a university or research institute are the least important factors in their decision to work with them. Only 8% of the R&D professionals surveyed said that the prestige of an institute is a factor they consider, and only 9% said that location is important. No one said that they factor in institute size. (See Figure 1.)

This is not a completely new finding. The R&D community had already told us in 2019 that location was the least important factor when evaluating an innovation or breakthrough from academia.

This outlook is also reflected by the industry engagement community. Only 10% of the professionals who completed our 2021 survey said that the location of a prospective industry partner was a significant factor in their decision to start a collaboration, while 17% identified the prestige of the company as important. And only 15% considered the size of the company. (See Figure 2.)

Collaboration goes global

This attitude towards prestige, size, and location for forming new university-industry partnerships is in part a reflection of the global nature of the research ecosystem. Science isn’t limited by borders. But in terms of how that plays out practically for scientists and partnership teams in industry and academia, recent changes forced on the ecosystem by the COVID-19 pandemic have also played their part.

For some universities and companies, notably those in Australia, Asia and the Western Americas, keeping in touch with collaborators across hefty time differences through video conferencing was already fairly standard prior to COVID-19. But now, for universities and companies around the world, the pandemic has accelerated the transition to ubiquitous online communication.

Most corporate engagement teams and R&D professionals (those not working directly in the lab) have been working out of their homes now for the best part of a year. With travel restrictions, in-person meetings have been off the table, and this has forced everyone to become fluent using online communication tools. While face-to-face conversations are still valuable and will eventually return to some extent, widespread online communication has effectively removed the need for collaboration partners to be in the same country or region of the planet.

When we asked what ‘positives’ our community was taking from the pandemic, a majority said that the biggest positive has been the shift to online communication. Out of the 73% of industry engagement professionals who said they have taken positives from the pandemic, 46% said the best thing has been the improvement in communication with industry through digital tools. This response was echoed by the R&D community. Of the 68% who have taken positives from the pandemic, 65% of those named the increased use of digital communication as the main positive for university-industry collaborations.

If the shoe fits it doesn’t matter so much where it was made. This was something we confirmed last year through an analysis that looked at the conversations R&D teams had been starting with universities through our Discover service. The majority of these conversations were with institutes outside the global top 100.

As both universities and companies increase their use of online resources to connect, this has the effect of leveling the playing field, making expertise available regardless of where it’s situated. With the increasing use of online tools such as IN-PART, it’s now easier than ever for smaller, specialist institutes to have greater visibility, and for companies of any size or shape to discover novel technologies in universities across the world. Through our matchmaking platform, 75% of the 9,000 conversations started between universities and companies have been between teams in different countries.

Alignment of research interests

The most crucial factor for both parties when considering an opportunity to collaborate is the alignment of research interests. Academic research, innovation and expertise need to be very well matched to the R&D interests and requirements of the company for them to make the investment of time and resources worthwhile.

In our 2021 survey, there emerged a clear winner that the university and industry community consider when looking for new partners. Within our university community, 94% said that they valued the alignment of research interests as the most important factor in collaborations. This is in complete agreement with 91% of the responses from our industry community.

We saw a similar pattern of response in our 2020 survey, with 71% of industry respondents agreeing that universities needed to better align their research to their needs and requirements. And this was reflected by the corporate engagement community, where 75% of industry engagement professionals agreed that research needed to be better aligned to R&D requirements. Ultimately, it’s crucial for both sectors to ensure they’re working towards goals that are aligned.

Stage of development crucial for industry

The stage of development of a research project or technology came in as the second most important factor for companies when considering a collaboration, with 50% of industry R&D respondents highlighting this.

In a webinar last year, ‘What do R&D teams want from universities?’, we spoke with a panel of R&D professionals working at the interface to academia. They also highlighted that technology readiness level is a key aspect that their teams consider when searching for new university innovations to bring to market. While it can require fewer resources for industry to bring more established university innovations to market, the R&D panel noted that often they are still interested in early-stage research and technologies as a way to get involved with a breakthrough at an early stage, to help shape its development.

For universities, it’s the expertise

For corporate engagement offices, the second most important factor when evaluating a prospective industry partner is the in-house expertise at the company. They recognize that in order for a university-developed technology or research project to be successfully commercialized, the right technical expertise and resources must be in place within the company to effectively leverage it.

They also depend on there being a champion or dedicated team within the company to support the collaboration and help navigate IP ownership and development, to provide support with funding where required, and to drive the project forwards. These aspects must be in place for a university to be confident that a company is the right partner for developing a technology.

Contact Kirk IN-PART is a matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration that provides the initial introduction for new partnerships.

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