Tech Transfer Central
University-Industry Engagement Advisor
University-Industry Engagement Advisor
Guest Commentary

How do industry R&D teams evaluate new partnership opportunities?

By Dan Judd
University Liaison Officer
IN-PART, Sheffield Office

This article appeared in the August 2019 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

Don't forget to sign up for University-Industry Engagement Week, the free online companion to University-Industry Engagement Advisor monthly newsletter.

You'll also receive info on upcoming webinars and other related products.

We’re often asked by the universities that use IN-PART’s matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration what R&D teams are looking for in new potential collaborators. So, to provide some answers, we spoke with our industry community and asked them what informs their decisions to establish new partnerships with universities.

Presenting the right information

When an R&D professional reviews an opportunity to collaborate with a university, the decision to pass or to learn more ultimately comes down to whether they have all the relevant information needed to make that decision. If a project summary doesn’t have the right information, regardless of its potential, the company will often pass or lose interest. 

Ronan Bellabarba, a technology manager at Johnson Matthey — a British multinational that works on speciality chemicals and sustainable technologies — outlined the importance of highlighting what benefits a new technology has over existing systems.

“There are certain critical points of information which are necessary to establish relevance. These are obviously the fit with my company’s existing, or potential, technology and markets, but also what problem does the technology solve, and how is this better than existing solutions?” Bellabarba said.

He also emphasized that having an economic analysis is an essential part of the equation.

“The critical point for an initial evaluation is to have some kind of economic comparison against the leading competing solution to that problem. The ‘hook’ that gets a company interested is often presented as technical, but needs to be commercial; it also has to be credible. These calculations are not difficult but increase the impact by orders of magnitude,” he said.

Similar insights were shared by the Alliances and External Research Manager at a Japanese Pharmaceutical company who requested to remain anonymous:

“From the viewpoint of making a decision, the most important information would be differentiation points compared with other competitive technologies. It would be easier to understand the technology well by including aspects such as research summary, key differentiation points, applicable areas for the technology, IP, and publications,” the research manager explained.

Additional data and validation

The starting point for every new interaction between an R&D team and university is the exchange of information. Usually, this comes in the form of a request for more non-confidential information, data, or specific questions about the breakthrough — further to the information provided in the project summary.

Ganesh Ram, the co-founder of RetinaLyze — a Danish company applying AI and telemedicine to ocular disease screening — shared a sample set of questions that he’s previously asked a university:

— Could you lead me to clinical validations of the product?

— Would it be possible for you to send us a video with a demonstration of the product?

— Could you explain what the technical requirements are to make the system work (i.e. does it require a 3D tablet computer and/or internet connection) and the cost to acquire this infrastructure/ the necessary devices?

— Would it be possible for you to illustrate the intended/preferred business model between you and us?

As we’ve seen from our own client interactions, sending further information, data, and evidence for validation in the days following a request from industry leads to greater rates of success. Thinking about what questions an R&D team might ask, and having the answers at hand to send over immediately, is a surefire way to maximize your chances of securing a new partnership.

A productive discussion

While not every introduction to a potential partner leads to a headline-generating collaboration, there is value to the discussion itself in terms of building a relationship and gaining valuable market input. Honesty and openness are important to industry partners, and the need to be up-front about limitations and caveats was cited by Bellabarba as a key concern.

“If there are obvious issues (e.g. tricky materials handling, separations, exotic process steps) then this question will be asked, and in my experience the conversation tends to end there, which it needn’t. Perhaps a way forward could have been found,” he comments.

Even after clearing the first hurdle of getting a potential collaborating company interested in a project, some partnerships are cut short due to communication issues. This was highlighted by a number of the R&D leads we spoke with.

“The best thing is to be responsive. Ultimately this is a negotiation, and thus a dialogue has to be started,” Bellabarba said.

“Time is money. In some cases, it takes too long to get their reply/feedback,” added the research manager from the Japanese pharma firm.

Industry and academia operate on different cycles and timescales; each has different pressures and requirements. But from what we’ve seen through IN-PART, the essential foundation for a productive conversation is to send prompt, professionals responses. It’s about keeping the conversation going. So if there’s going to be a delay, at least send a holding e-mail to manage expectations.

A unique patent and clear IP strategy

Once an R&D team has found something relevant to their pipeline and made a decision to explore collaborating with a university, the next step is usually to negotiate access to intellectual property — both before and after a collaboration. This can be make-or-break for many new partnerships.

According to Bellabarba, his company “won’t consider IP that looks like a ‘me-too’ effort or a marginal improvement on existing technology. In my industry, if there is a technology that is already mature and operating, it is practically impossible to persuade a customer to buy an unproven but similar solution.”

The Japanese pharma’s alliances manager outlined the need to have a patent strategy in place before negotiations begin. “If I feel a university doesn’t have a clear patent strategy, it would be a signal for a red flag. Especially for a pharmaceutical company, IP is one of the most important aspects.”

The senior manager of academic relations and open innovation at a global consumer electronics company (who also asked to remain anonymous) emphasized that having engagement from the academics involved is a sign of a promising project. “It also helps if the inventor is available to speak with technical experts on the industry side. Often we want a partner to help us implement technology that works better than what we can do in-house.”

Editor’s note: IN-PART is an online matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration that initiates new conversations between teams in academia and industry to get ideas out of the lab and onto the market. IN-PART is free for companies, and the company seeks no royalties or percentage on any deals. For more information, go to

About University-Industry Engagement Advisor monthly newsletter...

Find more articles like this one when you subscribe to University-Industry Engagement Advisor monthly newsletter. Sign up today and get immediate access to our growing archive of UIEA back issues, as well as the distance learning program, Metrics and Benchmarking for University Corporate Engagement: Breaking Down Silos to Gauge Performance. This one-hour on-demand video will provide a roadmap to bringing your corporate engagement efforts into a more cohesive, holistic strategy, and gathering, organizing, and reporting the data you need to gauge the effectiveness of those efforts, report on your progress to stakeholders, and point you to areas needing improvement.