Developing and managing university-industry research collaborations through a process methodology/industrial sector approach.

Author:Philbin, Simon P.


A large proportion of universities in the United States and Europe have traditionally focused on undergraduate education, with a lesser emphasis on research. This has largely been the case since many of these institutions were founded (Bozeman & Boardman, 2003). There are, however, a smaller but significant number of universities where considerable research is undertaken. Such universities tend to receive research funding from a range of sources, including government organizations, charitable foundations, philanthropic donations, and industry (D'Este & Patel, 2007). This latter source is likely to include industrial funding for contract research, collaborative research projects, consultancy and technical advisory work, as well as the development of intellectual property through licensing of patents and other commercial activities (Perkmann & Walsh, 2007). The ability for universities to develop such commercial activities has a number of benefits; however, competition among academic institutions can be intense (Wimsatt, Trice, & Langley, 2009), and the success rate for proposals submitted to industry is often low.

The benefits for universities in undertaking commercial projects include access to additional financial resources to fund doctoral and post-doctoral positions; the potential to develop intellectual property; the provision of an application context for research (with application-specific data and information provided by the company); as well as the ability to generate research that results in journal publications and conference papers. Therefore, universities are increasingly interested in positioning themselves favourably with potential commercial partners and in converting research opportunities into funded projects that may ultimately lead to long-term, sustainable collaborations.

This paper describes a combined process methodology/industrial sector management framework that has been successfully deployed at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom to improve the research development process and the management of industrially funded research collaborations. This has been part of a systematic approach to increase the financial value of research contracts from industrial sources, to strengthen the academic base, and to diversify the sources of research at the university. The strategy has helped produce collaborative research programs at the university worth approximately 20 million [pounds sterling] over a five-year period. Although these projects have been funded by companies, and so can be regarded as a form of contract research, the actual funding has largely originated from government sources, and the research involves a significant level of collaboration between the company and the university; therefore, it is appropriate to regard these as collaborative research programs. The programs involve collaborative research with industrial companies in the UK, where the company provided funds to the university and the projects have been focused on the aerospace and defense (A&D) industrial sector.

This combined process methodology/industrial sector management framework is composed of two main platforms of activity (Figure 1):The use of an industrial sector or channel focus (sector platform), and the development and deployment of structured process methodologies to help facilitate research collaboration (process platform).


The studies reported in this paper will not focus on the field of technology transfer (Siegel, Waldman, Atwater & Link, 2003), which more often

refers to activities such as licensing agreements, start-ups and joint ventures

University-Industry Research Collaboration

Globally, there is increased competition among academic institutions, as university research groups compete with their peers to receive funding from large industrial companies to undertake research and technology (R&T) studies. This competition for funding and resources is prompting universities to improve their processes for developing and managing research collaborations with industry (Tucker, 2007). Industrial organizations work with universities to gain access to the intellectual knowledge and creative thinking within the academic environment (Sherwood & Covin, 2008). This can be regarded in terms of the open innovation model (Chesbrough, 2006), in which organizations increasingly partner with external sources for innovation. The motivation for companies is that the knowledge and academic thinking within universities can be utilized to deliver R&T, which can then help them improve their competitive positioning from building technology capabilities (Dooley & Kirk, 2007) through developing enhanced products or services. Industrial organizations are, however, required to justify research funding for universities, and so there is a greater need to capture the wider benefits of such collaboration, i.e., improving the skills and knowledge of the company's staff through knowledge transfer as well as the potential recruitment of technically qualified graduate students as new employees.

The merits of partnering between universities and companies have been explored in the literature. Kleyn, Kitney & Atun (2007) elucidated certain critical factors that contribute to successful university-industry partnerships in the life sciences sector, including leadership, organisational structure and operational management. The premise is that improvement in these factors can enhance the effectiveness of partnering, thereby improving innovation in research. Partnerships may also be regarded in terms of strategic alliances, where organizations cooperatively share knowledge and resources to gain competitive advantage (Ireland, Hitt & Vaidyanath, 2002). Moreover, Hitt, Ireland and Santoro (2004) have proposed a conceptual model, where alliance development and management effectiveness are supported by optimal resource configuration and exploitation mechanisms that allow value to be created by the alliance, and which build on information sharing and trust.

University-industry alliances can also be used to facilitate collaborative research projects, since sharing research can create value for both partners (Jarillo, 1988). Therefore, the development of strategic alliances can be an attractive way for organizations to grow their commercial activities (Sampson, 2007). However, harnessing knowledge from individuals outside an organization can present its own challenges, and a counter argument is that the relationships that support such alliances can sometimes become a liability by decreasing the quality of knowledge provided (Anand, Glick, and Manz, 2002). Nevertheless, many studies identify the benefits to the innovation process derived from the successful management of alliances and partnerships (Walter, Lechner, and Kellermanns, 2007).

A number of studies have highlighted the role that social capital can play in alliances and collaboration (Koka & Prescott, 2002). Social capital, when including information sharing, trust, and regular and open communication, has been shown to promote alliance development (Hitt, Ireland & Santoro, 2004). Moreover, trust, in conjunction with the level of commitment between partners, has also been identified as a significant indicator of whether or not a university-industry collaboration will be renewed (Plewa & Quester, 2007). Furthermore, a lack of social connectedness may inhibit the development of university-industry collaborations. Thune (2007) has employed a network embeddedness approach to investigate the role of social capital in developing university-industry collaborations. This study viewed social capital as an underpinning ingredient that helps facilitate collaborations; where social capital is limited, the new collaborations can be seriously hampered.

The role of knowledge itself is also fundamentally important to the development and management of collaborations, especially in regard to a company's ability to assimilate knowledge arising from collaborative activities (Barbolla & Corredera, 2009). In this regard, studies have identified the need for more formal mechanisms to enhance knowledge transfer, such as policies for intellectual property rights (IPR) as well as consideration of the relatedness of technology capabilities for the collaborating partners (Santoro & Bierly, 2006).

The effectiveness of knowledge transfer is influenced by its type. Explicit knowledge (e.g., data within a spreadsheet or database, or listed information and reports) is not particularly difficult to transfer; however, tacit knowledge can be more difficult to codify and transfer (Simonin, 1999). Such knowledge may, for example, be lacking when a researcher has not fully recorded all the fine details associated with successfully carrying out a certain materials spectroscopic technique. Consequently, for a collaboration to be effective, mechanisms to transfer tacit knowledge between collaborators need to be considered. Woods, Curran, Raghunathan & McKeever (2004) have identified a number of barriers to the transfer of tacit knowledge arising from university-industry collaborative research projects. These barriers include delays in achieving research objectives as well as differences between the university and the company regarding expectations for project progress; i.e., the company may have a more short-term horizon for fulfilment of the research goals. Therefore, the ability to address these barriers through appropriate mechanisms, such as enhanced communication between collaborators and improved measurement of the research outcomes, can contribute to an enhanced collaboration process.

Specific attributes of university-industry research collaboration have also been explored. Burnside and Witkin (2008) have reported on how IP negotiation can act as a barrier to new collaborations. They have proposed a process-driven approach to help academic faculty and contracts staff resolve...

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