Good collaborations between industry and academia have the potential to bring huge benefits - with some high profile ones recently such as the CCTV and the announcement of the Apollo Therapeutics Fund. The want to collaborate is certainly not a new thing, and traditionally some companies and universities have been much better at it than others.

I have worked at the interface of academic and industry science for a while now - some from the academic side of the fence, and some on the industry side - and it is worth noting that the grass is an equal shade of green on both sides! Being involved in developing collaborations has highlighted some key things for me, which I wanted to write down in case they help anyone else. These are a few thoughts that have a) turned out to be true, and b) stuck with me, from various training courses, personal development workshops and direct experiences I have been through - and formed part of a lecture I used to give to students on the subject of academic/industry collaboration.

It is important for those involved in developing a collaboration to understand the nature of the working environment that industry people and academics have to work in. Many problems in building lasting partnerships come from a lack of understanding of this - and the resulting mismatch with expectations of how a project will go. Sometimes these are money issues, sometimes project management (open ended academic questions vs industry goal-focussed finite projects). Certainly in the case of money there has been one misconception that sits as a barrier at the beginning of many conversations: Academics think industry are rich - and Industry think the products of academia should be free. The modern reality is often that neither have much money - and whilst academics often need to get some money, and industry can pay a bit - the real “value” that can emerge from working together can be greater over time than a quick cash payment.

In general - beyond actual technical specifics - it is useful to think about what it is that academia and industry want out of collaborations - and what they can offer each other. The following Figures (1 and 2) of “value propositions” outlines some of this, and hopefully it is clear to see that there is some alignment.

Figure 1.
Value propositions of industry and academia – Industry Wants and Academic Offers

Figure 2.
Value propositions of industry and academia – Academic Wants and Industry Offers

So there are areas where offerings generally overlap with needs - in both directions - but the next challenge to address is the differences in language - how industry and academia describe the “business” of what they do. Often industry projects are phrased to align with market pressures/reactions or strategic planning. Academic project capability often aligns with long or short-term undergraduate or post-graduate research projects, or staff consultancy.

I saw a presentation once at a business development training workshop from the London Technology Network (since absorbed into One Nucleus), where the following figures were presented. I do not know the presenter or where the figures came from, but I have reproduced them from memory and found them useful on several occasions. If anybody recognises these please let me know - I will happily acknowledge the original author!

The first graph (Fig 3.) outlines the kind of projects industry might like to engage with, in “industry-speak” - with increasing financial or time commitments vs business strategy on the axes. The second graph (Fig 4.) outlines a traditional view of academic offerings - ways to run collaborative projects or generally work with people in academia - based on the same time/financial commitment scale. e.g. MSc research projects are fairly short and quite cheap - whereas sponsoring a PhD project is a longer and more expensive commitment. Overlapping the two graphs clarifies the “common” language that should aid planning a collaborative project.

Figure 3
. Graphical view of industry project types visualised by time or cost commitment vs alignment with business strategy

Figure 4.
Graphical view of academic project types aligned/overlaid with industry interests from Figure 3.

There is always an attraction from the academic side to aim high – dare I say, generally based on perceptions of grandeur/self-worth, or the wealth of industry. “We should have a named research centre because:” (a) “I am an expert in XYZ”; or (b) “this University is the best in the world at XYZ”; or even “Company XYZ has lots of money”.

I would suggest that very few (if any) successful collaborations begin this way – and certainly not at the high value end of figures 3 & 4. Reputation or wealth may be a factor in the beginning of a discussion about collaborating, but the building of a successful relationship requires the development of trust between both parties. Trust built up over multiple projects or repeat interactions is what will drive progressively larger collaborative projects.

It is useful then to consider how trust works in the development of collaborative relationships – and the best example (well known) for this I have seen is the “trust equation”, shown below in Figure 5, which originates from Harvard Professors, David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford.

Trust emerges from the sum of Reliability, Credibility and Intimacy from interactions, but can be undermined by perceptions of Self Interest.

Figure 5.
The trust equation. Trust (T) equals the sum of Credibility (C), Reliability (R) and Intimacy (I) – which can be undermined (divided by) perceptions of Self Interest (S).

Hopefully it is clear how this can apply in many situations (not just to academic/industry collaboration!). By getting over that first hurdle of establishing mutual interest and arranging that first meeting to discuss collaboration both parties are starting a relationship that will be based on a growing assessment of trust – beginning at that first meeting. Did the meeting happen on time, as planned, with everyone present (R); was the first topic money, or “what’s in it for me?” (S); Is there a rapport, a sense you could work together? (I); assuming reputation sparked the meeting, does expertise/knowledge hold up under discussion (C)?

A positive outcome to all of this may be a joint project – probably a small one. Such a project may deliver a distinct outcome for both parties, but will hopefully provide an opportunity to reinforce the trust already established. Make sure the project is delivered on time and within scope – and payment is efficient (R), keep up a good communication and working relationship (I), and ensure the technical input to the project is suitable (ie academics not passing projects down to PhDs to deliver!) (C). Most of this should be common sense – deliver what you said you would deliver! However, the problems come if we do not remember to consider (S) – Don’t keep asking about money (or change price!); if a student is involved, ensure any duty to their study or supervision is met; do not take work off on a tangent, no matter how interesting or aligned with other research interests without discussion with the client; do not suddenly change scope without discussion with the team delivering the project. These will almost certainly make follow-on projects less likely – or at least weaken your future negotiating position!

If an initial project is delivered well – and the trust equation is balanced – then it is easier to enter into discussions about further projects. This is how a collaborative relationship can progress from short, tactical projects responding to immediate business needs – perhaps a 1 month staff consultancy project, or a short 3 month student project for a relatively small fee – towards longer-term high value strategic projects. Progression up the scale of collaborative projects though repeat interactions based on trust is shown below in Figure 6.

Figure 6.
Graphical view of academic project types aligned/overlaid with industry interests – showing how repeat interactions building trust enable progression towards longer-tern, higher value strategic projects.

Hopefully, by keeping some of these things in mind, collaborations should come easier and develop fruitfully. There are some other things to consider though, which I have not covered here (and may become the subject of a future article) – these are things that can put the brakes on what is an otherwise good working relationship. Briefly, these are:

  • Loss of Trust – breaking any part of the equation.
  • Unclear or messy IP position – it needs to be absolutely clear who owns/or will own what.
  • Unrealistic valuations – Academics, you cannot use an industry project to fund a whole research group! Similarly Industry, just because academics receive public funding, doesn’t mean this subsidises all of their output!
  • Inability to deliver – deliver (and pay!) on time. Never overrun without discussion or agreement – extra work to get better results might make better science, but may not align with the business timeframe making the project worthless.
  • Changing direction of research – never change deliverables or scope without agreement.
  • Straying from publication agreement – publication agreements are there to protect commercial interests – but should be considerate of academic needs for output where possible. Breaking them significantly undermines the value of the project – and the trust.
  • Lack of confidentiality – similar to the point above regarding publication. Ensure that all staff and students working on a commercial project are aware of (and ideally bound to) a statement of confidentiality.
  • Lack of communication – most important. Nearly all problems that can damage a collaboration can be avoided by good and timely communication – whether that is communicating successes, or highlighting issues as they arise so the partners can work together to agree solutions or redefine the project deliverables/scope to compensate.

Both parties need to understand pressures and driving forces on each other