#167 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 7
Rubenstein is Walter P. Murphy Professor and director of the
Center for Information and Communication Technology at
Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
studying relationships between university-industry research
interactions and industrial innovation, with a focus on factors
that can strengthen these interactions.
This research involves collecting data from a number of
universities and industries.
research is at an early stage, many barriers to technology
transfer between the academic and private sectors have become
apparent. I'm going to describe these barriers using the metaphor of
courtship, because some aspects of courtship, oddly enough,
describe the development of relationships between university and
has to attract one of the two parties (university or industry) to
the other: perhaps an industrial researcher and a professor meet
at a professional meeting and realized that they'd like to pursue
a potential application of the professor's recent discovery.
In the past, given the spirit of academic openness, it was
relatively simple for the two to begin collaborating.
Now, there are major administrative blocks to such an
informal collaboration. Yet
the academic world's greater interest in patents, faculty's
increased interest in the corporate world, and the difficulty of
winning government grants, have dramatically increased
university-industry interactions. Feeling greater competitive
pressures, industry is looking more to universities for a research
Assume the two
researchers personally want to go ahead with the relationship.
The first question is who, in each organization, should be
contacted? Often the
researchers don't know. Therefore,
both organizations need easily accessible and clear guidelines
describing a formal process and responsibilities during each step
in the process.
But just because
administrators have been contacted doesn't ensure they'll think
about, or work on, the interaction.
It may be a while until one or both contacts finally has
the time or interest to get started.
Usually, the researchers would like to get started
immediately, but that's rarely possible.
Using the courtship metaphor: non-responsiveness is sure to
representatives must meet face-to-face to write a "pre-pre-preproposal,"
defining the work, funding, schedules, confidentiality, and
intellectual property rights.
But due to busy schedules and/or higher priorities, this
meeting may not be scheduled as quickly as desired.
With many technologies advancing so rapidly, these delays
can mean the loss of technical or commercial lead time (in many
instances, patent priority is given to a party which was only a
week or two ahead of the competition).
Once the concepts
are on paper, sensitivities may be raised. Is the overhead sufficient?
Is the time frame too long?
Why does the work require two new technicians?
Why should industry representatives have the right to look
at the grad student's notebook?
What if this interaction helps someone in industry scoop
the grad student?
administrative contacts usually must ask the researchers and
administrators to clarify issues.
Are visits necessary to solve sticky issues?
If a visit is necessary, who calls whom?
Faculty are often shy, diffident, lazy, disorganized, and
inexperienced at follow-up. On
the other hand, industry representatives are often traveling,
pre-occupied, arrogant, unable or unwilling to commit to a next
step without a go-ahead from managers who may likewise be
traveling, pre-occupied, or powerless to commit without
interaction ends here, as one side or the other loses
patience--why wait weeks, months, or even years?
But an ambitious researcher will not just hand off the
project and ignore the administrator’s other responsibilities;
but rather, will keep track of progress (or lack of it) and prod
people who aren’t efficiently pursuing the proposal.
who owns what, who reports to whom, and when payments will be made
may never be resolved, particularly if one party values the
interaction less than the other.
Professors commonly have the unrealistic views that their
work is essential to the
company, while the industry representative may not understand or
highly value the professor's research.
Any of these
problems can become a reason for dropping the proposal as the
parties evaluate the collaboration's potential value (which may
look different than it first did).
agree on the proposal, they can expect administrative delays in
signing, since the other attorneys and administrators who are now
involved tend to exhume old issues, or raise new ones.
Commonly, after this, one of the researchers will see that
the final proposal that has altered the initial understandings. Who took out that extra technician? I didn't agree to report quarterly! Why shouldn't the company demand that the grad student on the
project visit twice a year?
must keep researchers appraised on recommended changes; and
researchers should continually keep track of the status of
negotiations. Generally, faculty stay away from the details of
administration (except to complain about it).
But, when a negotiation and contract involves their work,
they should be very much involved.
As in courtship,
actions are closely monitored.
Sometimes an activity is misunderstood, and can either
repel or attract the other party for reasons that aren’t
First “Real” Date
agreement is signed, funding arranged, and the two researchers
finally start interacting, unexpected annoyances tend to creep in. "I didn't realize it would take two months to hire a new
grad student can't work on the project for the next three months
as she has to study for her prelims."
"Because of recent company results, we have to modify
your approach." "You
don't mind if a company researcher spends two weeks in your lab to
learn your new technique?"
company contact (usually a researcher) is enthusiastic about the
applied potential of the interaction, and it was that enthusiasm
that led management to sign the agreement.
However, as work progresses (even as planned) and
ramifications begin to really be discussed within the company, decisions could be made to
increase the interaction or, possibly, to terminate it.
Another possibility is that a company team which was
assigned to develop the university idea really isn’t interested
in it and may stifle opportunities for technology transfer.
parties maintain trust, confidence, and respect. Will there be an informal "keeping in touch" in
spite of turnover at the company, like
reassignments or terminations, or if the professor
unexpectedly takes a sabbatical?
What if the academic researcher is actively seeking other
industry connections? Many
times there’s a need for reorientation.
Will changes occur rapidly and smoothly, or will
administrative delays or inattention by the researchers bog down
the interaction so that no one is happy—and the opportunity for
innovation is decreased?
And so on, and so
on, until it’s time for a renewal—the “second date.”
Most relationships don’t reach that stage.
But sometimes they do, even leading to “marriage;”
that is, a professor joining the industry team, or the
industry researcher joining the faculty.
One advantage of such a marriage is the opportunity for
colleagues to learn more about the other’s
“culture”—knowledge useful to bring together new, and
better, relationships. Good
relationships are keys to romance—and innovation.