#167 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 7          July 1995

Industry-University Romance?
by Albert H. Rubenstein, Ph.D.

Dr. Rubenstein is Walter P. Murphy Professor and director of the Center for Information and Communication Technology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

We’ve been 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. 

While our 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 industry.


First, something 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 advantage.

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 dampen fervor.

Let's Have Lunch

Frequently, 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?

The initial 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 management's say-so.

Sometimes the 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. 

Disputes about 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). 

If negotiators 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? 

Administrators 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 warranted.

The First “Real” Date

Once the 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 technician."  "My 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?"

Sometimes the 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.

Ideally, both 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.

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