Industry / Academic Collaboration – Stronger Together

Written by: Jonathan H. Spadt

There has been a fundamental change to the research model about every 80 years since the founding of the United States in 1776.  Research and development was almost exclusively driven during the industrial revolution by private sector investment.  Then from 1862 to the outbreak of World War II, federally supported academic research was a primary driver.  The Morrill Act of 1862 established grants of land to states that were used to set up colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.”  That led to the establishment of dozens of land grant colleges by 1900, many of which even included “A&M” in their names.  Today there are over 70 land grant universities in the U.S.

The third model driving innovation in the U.S. came about as a result of the huge mobilization of science during WWII, and existed in the post-war era up until just the recent past.  This phase of innovation was driven primarily by heavy federal funding of both university and industrial laboratories.  Grant money to universities was substantial – think NASA, NIH, NSF, DOD, DOE, NOAH.  On the industrial side, think of Bell Labs and RCA/Sarnoff as primary examples.  The post-war era saw basic and applied research conducted at massive levels.  Today, after almost 80 years, federal funding has fallen, and the industrial labs have all but disappeared.  This latter decline was a result of a shift in modern corporate strategies which now focus increasingly on investments for later stage technologies (think < 3-5 years to commercialization).

Businesses today are shrinking lead times and demanding quicker ROI.  Most are generally not interested in funding the overhead and infrastructure necessary to support the types of laboratories that flourished from the 1940’s – 1990’s.  That reality, coupled with the fact that federal funding of basic research has remained flat (and in some cases decreased), it is clear that there is a need for a new source of basic and applied research.  The next era may well be industry-academic collaboration.  Although this model is gaining traction, it has not yet been fully embraced.  There are reasons for this, some of which will be discussed below, as well as some thoughts on the solutions.  Initially, however, I assert that policy leaders in all segments of society should endorse this new model because the positive outcomes have huge potential for our economy and shared prosperity.

So why has this new partnership model not yet been fully embraced?  In a word – culture.  Modern business drivers and traditional academic priorities have historically not been completely aligned.  But today those paths are converging, and it is precisely because stakeholders are seeing that the partnering of the two institutions is so necessary at this moment in history.  The big picture is that although the short term future is defined by incremental improvements already in the works, our long term future will be defined by wholly new technologies which can only come from basic research extended into development and commercialization.

Whether you are already in an industry/academic partnership, you are contemplating entering into such a partnership, or even if you are not yet on board with the benefits of such a partnership, here are some ideas that you might consider implementing into your organization to accelerate the development of new technologies.

  • Involve the right leadership at the highest levels.  Leaders of the partnership should be capable of understanding the historic differences in roles between academia and industry and should be focused on bridging those gaps.  One example of a gap is the perception (which legitimately has some roots in truth) by academia that studies by industry are inherently biased because of the commercial pressure for a particular result.  Industry has to understand this and perhaps consider allowing some form of academic model review for the sake of avoiding the appearance of any impropriety.  This is not an acknowledgment that without such an additional review there would have been any other result.  Simply put, such a review can help remove any potential appearance of impropriety, and there is nothing wrong with strengthening a research result with objective review.  Similarly, academic leadership can recognize that IP protection as a priority over publishing has merit in the commercial sense.  These types of compromise and understanding may seem simple, but will require a cultural movement to the middle in the types of partnerships contemplated in the new research model.
  • Along the same lines of cooperation, the partners should work together to not only create a coherent position on IP, but also work together to actively improve devolving U.S. IP laws, which have been negatively impacting investment since 2006 (arguably 2002).  By doing these things together, you are showing policy and law makers that you are aligned.   There was some notable conflict during the last round of legislative reform to the patent laws during in the negotiations leading up to the passage of the America Invents Act in 2011.  This is not to say that the positions espoused by the universities were not correct, or even that the exceptions were not well placed into the legislation.  What I am suggesting, however, is that the partnership between industry and academia present to Congress, on a unified front, a pre-agreed to compromise.  This not only shows unity, but makes it easier for members to support it without appearing to “take sides.”
  • Another outcome of presenting a unified front is that a larger stakeholder is present when it’s time to lobby for state and federal money/tax incentives, as well as generating public support for research money through public awareness and education.   Doing all of this together presents not only an opportunity for the public to see the value in the partnership, but also for the partners to ask the public to support increased levels of funding.  One part of that message should be that among the most prosperous and successful countries in the world, only China is increasing governmental funding for basic research.
  • Design new incentives for university researchers and provide resources to address the cultural differences.  Make it clear on both sides that no one is being asked to sacrifice their priorities, but insist that everyone involved acknowledge that there is a mutual benefit in working together for a better society.  Likewise, industry leadership must support some of the academic priorities that make the partnership work.  Instead of penalties for delayed deliverables or missed benchmarks, consider incentives for early completion.  Yes.  Cultural change can be hard.

The success of any industry/academic partnership is rooted in trust.  Both sides should view it not as a single, arms-length transaction with an end date, but rather as on-going, long term relationship.  Leadership on both sides bears a responsibility to modify what were in the past very real differences in approach and perception.  The next 80 years of prosperity may depend on it.


About the Author:

Jonathan H. Spadt is an attorney, engineer and CEO of RatnerPrestia.  He is an expert on global innovation, intellectual property law, trade-related aspects of IP, and global supply-chain IP strategies.  With an established worldwide reputation as more than an attorney, but a counselor and policy developer, he has a broad view of economic and trade policies that interact with intellectual property law and policy.  He routinely writes and lectures throughout the United States and Europe in both the private and public sectors, and actively participates in policy discussions relevant to trade and IP law.