Bridging academia and industry
Universities are strongholds of knowledge and ideas, but getting those innovations to the market can be a challenge. Here are four strategies to boost industry-academia collaboration.
Many ground-breaking innovations have their humble beginnings in academia. For instance, Alan Turing carried out much of his foundational work in computing at Cambridge University in the UK and Princeton University in the US. Thereafter, industry players adopted those fundamental concepts and techniques, miniaturising and improving computers to make them more accessible to the average person. Today, computers have become a staple in homes and offices around the world, changing the way we live, work and play.
As history shows, the mixing of academia and industry could help society reap the rewards of fundamental research. But like oil and water, some coaxing may be required to get the two groups to intermingle. Part of this inertia stems from the fact that universities tend to take a longer-term view of innovation, preferring to focus on curiosity-driven research that may not have immediately obvious industrial application. On the other hand, companies need technical solutions in the shorter term to gain a competitive edge over their rivals.
University researchers also see publication of their findings as an indicator of their performance, yet publication could undermine patentability, which is what commercial enterprises desire. Add to that the concerns over objectivity and independence of thought when university researchers access industry funds for their research, and it becomes apparent why academics and business owners may steer clear of one another.
But these barriers are not insurmountable. We feature here four strategies to raise the likelihood of successful industry-academia collaboration.
1. Mix and match
Finding the right partner is the first step towards forming meaningful collaborations. Yet, academics may not interact frequently enough with commercial entities to be aware of industry pain points and the market potential of their research. Meanwhile, companies may be unaware of cutting-edge developments in university laboratories which may be relevant to their business.
This mutual ignorance can be overcome by providing more opportunities for both groups to mingle, be it through workshops, networking sessions or conferences. For example, IPI’s annual TechInnovation conference brings thousands of academics and business owners under one roof to share use cases and technological solutions.
If physical meetups are not possible, digital platforms for advertising technologies and broadcasting business problems are just as useful. Online repositories such as IPI’s TechOffers and TechNeeds pages can help inventors and industry players make initial contact, which could develop into full-fledged collaborations.
2. Build trust
The early stages of industry-academia collaboration are extremely vital in determining whether a partnership will bear fruit. To manage expectations, timeframes and deliverables are among the most important things that need to be discussed between academics and potential industry partners.
If a proposed research problem is too complex and takes too long to solve, it can perhaps be broken down into smaller components so that a conclusive outcome that satisfies both parties can be obtained sooner. Often, a small initial success may give university researchers and their industry counterparts the confidence to continue collaborating.
Trust and confidence also need to be built in the area of intellectual property (IP). As mentioned earlier, academics may see publication as an endpoint, but this could weaken or eliminate the chances of obtaining a patent to protect an invention. This is where non-disclosure agreements need to be worked out, and all stakeholders must establish and agree on the terms of IP ownership and the right of use.
3. Prototype and iterate
While plans and proposals may be useful to spark industry-academia collaboration, keeping the fire of partnership going is more difficult. Frequent interactions among partners are key to sustaining joint projects and moving them forward, but instead of just engaging with one another via phone calls, emails and written reports, universities and companies should also endeavour to communicate through prototypes.
With a physical prototype to see and touch, discussions among stakeholders become much more focussed. Design ideas are expressed more easily, while limitations and knowledge gaps can be clearly pointed out. Prototypes thus help create a common language for suggesting improvements, and this can speed up iterations of a novel product or service.
4. Measure readiness
Sometimes, scientists may have developed something that they feel is ready for the market. Yet, from an industry standpoint, further refinement is needed. Disparity thus arises in the perception of an innovation’s maturity. If left unaddressed, inventions that could have a significant impact on an industry may end up getting stuck in limbo.
To overcome this bottleneck, offices of research and technology transfer within universities can work with various industries to define frameworks for measuring technology readiness. Such frameworks should include clear indicators of progress from one stage of development to the next.
For instance, if only data collection and feasibility studies have been carried out, a low technology readiness level (TRL) may be assigned to an invention. But once the invention has been shown to be useful in an industrially relevant context, it then moves to a higher TRL. For objective assessments of TRL, universities and enterprises may want to seek out third-party agencies like IPI that have experience in brokering industry-academia relationships.