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University-industry collaboration: A closer look for research leaders

Universities and industry collaborations are on the rise. Learn why, what helps them succeed, how to find partners and more.

University-industry collaboration header

What is university-industry collaboration?

Our university is committed to excellent teaching, innovative research, and the personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community.

Above is a mission statement from a prominent US research university. It is typical of most. The notable features of the mission statement are the commitment to the students and the academic community.

The primary purpose of corporations is to deliver shareholder value. For start-ups, they must provide returns to their investors.

The academic culture encourages openness; researchers are motivated to share and publish new findings. In contrast, corporate culture is more guarded; they need to monetize their innovations.

Quiz: Which of the following is true regarding academic-industry collaborations?

  1. There is only one kind of collaboration.

  2. Societal Impact is one potential benefit for these collaborations.

  3. Looking at relationships for long-term potential is important.

  4. Having an existing relationship with an industry partner doesn’t matter.

  5. Citations are lower when publishing with an industry researcher.

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Read through the chapters to find out the correct answers or see them directly at the end of this page.

With these divergent agendas, can they ever get along? Let alone collaborate?

The answer is a resounding yes. Cultures are rapidly changing for both universities and companies, and corporate culture is embracing openness more and more. And, universities are realizing they need a way to make their findings more socially relevant.

Universities and industry collaborations are on the rise. According to a news blog item from Nature Indexopens in new tab/window, academic-industry collaborations more than doubled between 2012 and 2016. The chart below shows that, according to Scopus, the global number of papers co-authored by a research institution and an industry partner is on a steady rise.

Academic-Corporate co-authored publication growth 2015-2019

Academic-Corporate co-authored publication growth 2015-2019.

The chart below shows that while universities and their industry partners have different missions, they also have complementary skillsets. Each brings something to the table for innovative discoveries. University researchers are good at finding difficult problems and having the freedom to pursue different solutions; companies are good at taking discoveries and developing them.

Expenditure in millions constant 2012$

Source: NSF, National Patterns of R&D Resources: 2017-2018 Data Update. Expenditure in millions constant 2012$.

As you can see from the chart above, the two sectors' investments are different but complementary. Having these complementary skills is a reliable formula for successful partnerships.

University and industry collaboration comes in many forms.

Two scientists walk into a bar comic

Two scientists walk into a bar. One says, "I'll have the H2O, please." He gets some water. The other says, "I'll have some H2O too." He dies.

This scene is often the beginning of fruitful collaborations (minus the death).

Imagine two researchers – one from a biotech start-up and another from a large university medical research lab – meet at a conference. They discover they have similar research interests and share research and jointly publishing papers. Serendipity can be a powerful force in driving innovations. This collaboration might start with a simple interaction, but is also one that leads to fruitful discoveries.

Now, examine the idea of a much broader engagement between a university and an industry partner. This collaboration is often a strategic partnership with the most senior levels in university leadership taking part. An example of this is the relationship between the University of Cincinnati and Procter & Gamble.

collaboration illustration

Dr. Philip Tayloropens in new tab/window, former Assistant Vice President, Office of Research at the University of Cincinnati and current President of Philip H Taylor, Environmental Consulting, shares his unique perspective from both the industry and university sectors. He sees the advantage of these agreements as bringing big problems to the university, which has the infrastructure, the architecture, and the right person to work on it. And, for the university, the agreement brings substantial industry funding.

There are examples of these collaborations around the globe.

According to Dr. Luigi Occhipinti,opens in new tab/window Director of Research at the University of Cambridge, he often sees collaborations in the engineering department and start small and grow. He cites Dyson as an excellent example. In 2016, Cambridge and Dyson jointly opened the Dyson Centre for Engineering Designopens in new tab/window.

At the 2020 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit during the panel, "Will universities reimagine collaboration with global companies after COVID-19?" Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Pro-Chancellor, Symbiosis International University, India, related that the Serum Institute of India is working with AstraZeneca and Oxford University on manufacturing the potential COVID-19 vaccine. She stated,

Hopefully we will see this very wonderful industry, academia collaboration happening between a global university, like Oxford University, and a company in India.

The role government plays in university-industry collaboration.

Often governments play a role in these types of collaboration. Their involvement has generally been increasing and varies significantly by country. Three-way partnerships between Industry-Government-University are sometimes called Triple Helixopens in new tab/window.

In "Why two heads are better than one: the power of university-industry collaborationsopens in new tab/window," a recent episode of the Research 2030 podcast, Dr. Tony Boccanfusoopens in new tab/window, President of UIDPopens in new tab/window (University-Industry Demonstration Partnership), notes that, in the United States, the government's role has been relatively hands-off, but that trend is changing globally.

Listen in his own words.opens in new tab/window

Listen to our podcastopens in new tab/window

According to Dr. Occhipinti, one example of public funding agency is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK, supporting the Centres for Doctoral Training programs for university students, often also supported by industry partners.

A Chinese director of medical research told us about a broad, multi-year agreement between a pharmaceutical company, a university and the Chinese Academy of Sciences as an example of a triple helix arrangement.

medical research illustration

An intriguing example of a successful government program to encourage these collaborations in the US is the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Alliance for Nanotechnology in Canceropens in new tab/window. According to their websiteopens in new tab/window,

The Alliance model for translational research is that discoveries made in academic laboratories are handed off to for-profit partners for efficient development into research and clinical products. Alliance members have been eager to bring their technology to the clinic, forming over 100 start-up companies and partnerships with existing biotechnology firms. Many of these start-ups are thriving and now offer products, research, or consulting services to the academic and clinical communities. Others have attracted significant investment from large pharmaceutical companies and venture capital funds.

Why would universities and industries collaborate?

The executive summary of the United Kingdom’s review of university-industry collaboration, “The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborationsopens in new tab/window” states:

Strategic business-university research collaborations provide a myriad of benefits to their participants. For academics, these benefits can include the opportunity to address challenging research questions with real-world applications, see their research have tangible impacts and gain access to new skills, data or equipment. Companies can improve business performance through developing new techniques or technologies, de-risk investment in research, and extend the capabilities and expertise available to the firm.

According to the "Researcher Guidebook: A Guide for Successful Institutional-Industrial Collaborations" published by UIDPopens in new tab/window,

Both institutions and industries have much to gain from these collaborations since they promote the discovery of new synergies and models that promise mutual potential for ROI. For companies, partnering with institutions provides access to expertise and research that spurs innovation, extends their resources, and sharpens their competitive advantage. For non-profit institutions facing tightening federal budgets—which have created funding gaps in even the top laboratories, collaborations with industry offer promising revenue streams, effective ways to keep abreast of changing market and industry dynamics, and increased competitiveness in pursuing federal funding opportunities.

We asked global research leaders why they value collaborating with industry. Their top five answers:

  1. Better potential for societal impact

  2. Better student opportunities and outcomes

  3. Increased funding

  4. Economic development potential

  5. Utilize government programs for funding

Watch a video and read more below.

Five reasons universities collaborate with industry

5 reasons Universities and Industries Collaborate

Five reasons why universities collaborate with industry

What helps university-industry collaborations succeed?

Unfortunately, this is a simple question without an easy answer, although Dr. Lesley Thompsonopens in new tab/window, Vice President at Elsevier and former Programme Director at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of the seven UK research councils, sums it up nicely:

You're in it for the long term, and you are generous in your relationship.

At the beginning of this guide, we acknowledged the different missions and agendas of both higher ed institutions and the private sector. Dr. Thompson indicates that the most successful collaborations might start small. But, if both sides see the potential for a long-term partnership and share and communicate broadly, then the likelihood of success is greater.

Another critical aspect of successful collaborations is previous experience with a partner or a shared research agenda.

finding an industry partner

How can a university find an industry partner?

According to industry leaders, the two most important aspects they look for when starting a new project are a university partner:

  1. With a shared history of successful collaborations

  2. Working in the same research areas with a similar research agenda

Significant collaborations with broad agreements, like AstraZeneca and Oxford Universityopens in new tab/window, are well known. However, there are often smaller, less visible collaborations between researchers. When a university's Office of Research knows about these collaborations, they can nurture and expand them.

Likewise, suppose you know which companies are researching the same areas as you. In that case, you can try to align some projects and begin a new collaboration strategically.

How to find potential partners that meet one or both of these requirements? The key is data. One piece of data to evaluate and help you solve this puzzle is publication data. You can determine which industry partners you share co-authored papers with. Or, you can assess the papers from potential corporations to see which areas they are publishing in.

Here is a list of companies which a US research university has co-authored papers with.

SciVal – a tool for visualizing research performance.

SciVal – a tool for visualizing research performance.

In this example, the Engineering Department of the university wants to expand its corporate partnerships. This department has done a little bit with Caterpillar, Inc. Currently, they have seven researchers and four co-authored papers. Since this particular university is in the same region as Caterpillar, it is an exciting company to explore in more depth.

Identify Potential Industry Partners with SciVal

Illustrated woman overloaded with information

Identify Potential Industry Partners with SciVal

There are other examples of investigating co-authored papers to better understand your current collaborations and to determine potential new partners.

How does collaborating with industry affect citation impact?

Googleopens in new tab/window the question, "What is the most impactful paper of the 21st century," and the first result is "The most cited articles of the 21st century." The academic way of measuring impact is by publishing your research and seeing how many other articles cite that research: the more cites, the more impact.

Academic researchers often believe that papers co-authored with a corporate partner are cited less than ones written with academic partners.

To determine whether this is true, we examined different types of co-authored collaborations. We analyzed the citation impact around the globe using a field-weighted citation impact metricopens in new tab/window.

field-weighted citation impact metric

Source: "Will universities reimagine collaboration with global companies after COVID-19?" panel at the 2020 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit.

As you can see, for every region, the research they published with an industry co-author (blue bar) had a higher citation impact.

The urban myth of less respect for collaborating with industry is busted. Researchers should feel empowered to pursue this for all its advantages.

Correct answers: Which of the following is true regarding academic-industry collaborations?

1. There is only one kind of collaboration. False - Academic-industry collaborations come in all shapes and sizes.

2. Societal Impact is one potential benefit for these collaborations. True - Societal impact was identified by academic research leaders as one of the benefits of collaboration with industry.

3. Looking at relationships for long-term potential is important. True - Even though the two organizations might start with a small project, thinking in the long term and being generous in the relationship is a recipe for success.

4. Having an existing relationship with an industry partner doesn’t matter. False - A prior relationship is one of the two success factors in creating new research partnerships. The other one is a shared interest and background in a specific research topic.

5. Citations are lower when publishing with an industry researcher. False - In analysis of citation impact, we discovered that the citation impact is actually higher on papers co-authored between university and industry researchers.

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