[ Editor's Note: The following post is from one of our Selection Committee members. Jean-Marc is posting about his experiences at the Annual Meeting of New Champions, currently taking place in Tianjin, China from September 13-15. It is cross-posted here.]

Building Succesful Business-University Partnerships

Jean-Marc Frangos, Managing Director, External Innovation, BT Innovate & Design

The successful partnerships that exist between some of the world’s leading universities and top corporations have not always been easily replicated. As far as corporate innovation is concerned, there is hardly a more relevant question than that of getting maximum value out of research relationships, especially during times of economic challenges, when cost efficiencies are at the centre of attention.

A group of 60 young scientists discussed this subject during a vibrant workshop at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin today. They discussed the ingredients of success based on their collective experience of working with industry, and explored ideas to increase success rate and maximise value, both for corporate and for universities. Some famous companies, such as  Google, Yahoo!, SUN and Cisco were spun out of university research programmes, so why is it so hard to repeat those successes outside of Silicon Valley?

The Human Factor: A Key Component in Innovation Industrialization 

The group agreed that the key component for successful industrialization of innovation is the human factor. Taking an idea through the phases of articulation, validation, and industrialisation requires a trust relationship between a passionate scientist and a corporate champion, able to invest time and corporate credibility in the obstacle race from idea to market. This trust can only be established over the term of a lasting relationship, some examples ranged from 5 years to 15 years, which does not necessarily mean that universities are unable to react to request for help on short term projects, but that they are more efficient if the trust and collaboration processes have already been established and tested. Another essential factor is the role of a “liaison point”, a person who understand both worlds and their respective motivations, and can undertake translations of complex scientific concepts into business benefits, and articulate the business context to scientists. These liaison agents form “intelligent bridges” and their tenacity is often at the centre of successful projects.

However, the teams also recognised cultural or structural reasons for missed opportunities. For example, some scientists in the audience explained how the culture of their countries did not allow for junior researchers, whether they had a good idea or not, to make direct contact with corporate sponsors, as this was reserved to senior hierarchical members of their organisation. Sometimes, a 12-month business horizon and a 5 year PhD cycle are just irreconcilable, or the number of papers published matter more in the university rewards scale than the number of projects industrialised.

So, successful relationships are those which have been nurtured over a long period of time, and which unite local partners, where language and culture are common, within close geographic proximity, and facilitated by a tenacious “liaison agent”. How can this model be replicated more systematically, and could it be extended over a wider global footprint, where diversity of cultures and ideas might actually enrich the projects even further than the value derived out of local partnerships?

The Importance of Liaising Agents

Once universities have stated the priority of industrial collaboration and enabled all their members to participate in it, which can often be accelerated by governments through sharply defined incentive structures, the rate of successes is directly proportional to the number and efficiency of liaison agents. Both universities and companies must focus on detecting people with the appropriate skills and on coaching them into such essential roles if they want to improve innovation effectiveness. Finally, for such relationships to happen across frontiers and cultures, a combination of tools and incentives will need to be used, such as internet facilitated social networks, real time collaboration tools, and high definition teleconferencing, but nothing will replace the impact of direct personal relationships. The audience concluded that governments, corporations and universities should make it a priority to truly globalise innovation through such new partnerships. The rewards of combining the phenomenal rate of technological progress with the diversity of ideas and perspectives from universities worldwide have the potential to be significant for corporations, but also for humanity.