Universities and industry have a lot to learn from one another – and partnerships between the two can be mutually beneficial while especially serving the university’s entrepreneurial students.

It can be difficult to get these partnerships right, but with a structured collaborative framework on the part of the university, an eye to common values, flexibility and smart programmes for budding start-ups, these partnerships can benefit all involved.

Here’s how universities can better partner with industry and become more entrepreneurial.

Sharpening the university’s structures for collaboration with industry

Industry partners do not always find it easy to collaborate with universities. The partners might expect a streamlined process, but collaboration is often siloed, requiring partners to interact with different parts of the institution.

Nurturing a university culture for industry collaboration must be an institutional priority. Robert Rybnicek and Roland Königsgruber recently published a meta-analysis of the literature on factors facilitating university-industry collaboration, in which they identified structure and staff as critical factors affecting the success of partnerships.

Universities can improve collaboration by creating a transparent framework for industry partnerships. This includes appointing a dedicated partnership facilitator to help business leaders understand the processes and sequences of collaboration within the university and navigate transitions. Such a counterpart allows the university to take the lead on the collaboration in a structured way.

The evolution of university-industry collaboration in the UK is a noteworthy example. With more research funding to support collaborative programmes, the Innovative Manufacturing Initiative led to a host of new research-industry collaborations. But these endeavours exposed the need for greater capacity of industry to absorb leading research results. The most recent UK policy attempts to measure the impact universities have on society and the economy, with increased emphasis on knowledge transfer through the development of a new indicator, the Knowledge Excellence Framework.

Some universities, such as Imperial College London, have always fostered deep partnerships with industry. Imperial College London currently collaborates with more than 500 technology partners, contributing significantly to its core research income. These relationships and how they’re management within universities continue to evolve, as it’s recognized they bring multiple benefits beyond core research collaboration – including better access to and collaboration with talented students and staff, support for start-ups through corporate venture capital and corporate acceleration, engagement in local community activities and convening public events and raising awareness of the long-term importance of science, engineering, medicine and the arts. Such collaborations have led to more sophisticated mechanisms within universities to work across traditional silos.

Funding by industry in university R&D in millions (2006-2016)
Image: World Economic Forum/National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Higher Education Research and Development Survey

Shooting for the same stars

Partnerships are most successful when the collaborating parties have complementary assets and common values. It’s important for the collaborating parties to establish a consensus based on a clear understanding of how both parties can create synergies and derive value before establishing a partnership.

Not all partnerships between academia and industries work. Collaborations sometimes fail because of different expectations of success, timing and investment. One way to solve this is to establish a common plan for collaboration, with a clear calendar of communications and milestones, roster of counterparts, desired outcomes, investment and agreed processes for dispute resolution established early in the partnership. This commitment can ensure a shared vision for the university-industry collaboration –but it needs to remain flexible, ready to adapt as circumstances on both sides evolve. This is particularly important in collaborative research, when unexpected results may lead partnerships in new directions.

Agility is central to successful collaborations. Changes in industrial requirements may mean the plans for collaboration must adapt in rapid, flexible manner.

Alan Hughes and Ben Martin mapped the synergies and trade-offs between research, teaching and knowledge exchange in a 2012 report for the CIHE-UK~IRC Task Force on Enhancing Value on the value of public sector research and development. HEIs stands for Higher Education Institutions.
The synergies and trade-offs between research, teaching and knowledge exchange. (HEIs stands for Higher Education Institutions.)
Image: Enhancing Impact: The Value of Public Sector R&D by Alan Hughes and Ben Martin

Building a robust relationship between stakeholders from the get-go is essential. Relationships require a foundation of trust and an understanding of the interests of each party – and nurturing these relationships throughout the partnership is equally critical. As leadership change takes place at different rates in academia, start-ups and large corporations, it can be challenging to re-establish trust and re-align on the goals in the face of change. It’s important to have a strategic consensus to sustain the essence of mutual goals and reinforce the relationship to maintain a solid relationship throughout their partnership. MIT’s Industrial Liaison Programme and Imperial College’s Business Partners Club are good models.

“In particular, aligning on expectations from each stakeholder – academia, start-ups, and corporations – is a key to establishing trust and long-term success,” said Ram Jambunathan, Managing Director, SAP.iO. “Academia is often focused on pushing the boundaries forward through proof-of-concept demonstrations, while corporates may be looking for something incremental that can align to existing offerings, mature development processes or sales motions. And in between are start-ups coming from universities that are in the process of establishing product-market fit.”

Each university-industry partnership is a learning experience. Successes should be celebrated, but failures or unmet targets are also valuable, because the experience can refine and transform further collaborations into long-term successes and enduring relationships.

“In particular, aligning on expectations from each stakeholder – academia, start-ups, and corporations – is a key to establishing trust and long-term success,” said Ram Jambunathan, Managing Director, SAP.iO.

Simplifying spin-off and start-up activities

Expectations for universities have changed dramatically over the years. As Nesta, the innovation foundation, observed in 2016, university administrations increasingly want their students to grapple with real-world challenges. At the same time, the start-up boom and the appeal of venture capital funding has led to an increase in students seeking to build entrepreneurial careers while at university.

Start-ups born in the university may struggle with building the right team of colleagues and advisors, complexities of intellectual property rights and the potential pitfall of developing solutions without problems to address. Universities can help entrepreneurial students thrive by providing mentorship opportunities. For example, an MIT alum and professor launched the MIT Venture Mentoring Service in 2000 to fill a need in that community. Beyond thematic mentors to advise on concept or product development, student-entrepreneurs need access to mentors with expertise in project management, fundraising and legal matters to ensure start-ups are well-structured from the get-go. UnternehmerTUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation at the Technical University of Munich, has a dedicated start-up consulting team to lead burgeoning entrepreneurs to market.

Sid Misra, co-founder of Perceptive Automata, said, “Start-ups are built or broken by founding teams. Guidance on market expectations and business norms are invaluable to academic founders, whether through connections to relevant investors and start-up lawyers, teach-ins by local entrepreneurs or through more extensive entrepreneur-in-residence programs. If the university wants to encourage spin-offs, even though most ventures will not directly contribute meaningfully to a university’s operating budget in the short run, universities are actually in a unique position to play a defining role in the early days.”

A word of caution, however: universities can lay the groundwork for start-ups to succeed, but student-entrepreneurs (and even faculty entrepreneurs) must take the step to jump to market. Universities can increase the chances their students will succeed by building internship programmes that allow learners to work in early-stage companies, thus enabling students to understand what being an entrepreneur means.

Another way universities can nurture their entrepreneurial ecosystems is by providing spaces for entrepreneurial teams to meet with each other, other entrepreneurial teams, mentors and other companies. These spaces also provide an attractive venue for universities to engage with the corporate world. Imperial College London opened its Translation and Innovation Hub to nurture its entrepreneurial ecosystem and host its White City Incubator. It includes all the aforementioned elements, including dedicated lab facilities to include life-science start-ups in their innovation ecosystem.

Finally, universities can assist start-ups is by offering simple intellectual property rights regimes, either with the university obtaining a percentage of equity in the start-up for a given funding amount, or with the university fully supporting a start-up. The intellectual property regime certainly needs to be tailored to the industry or the situation, but start-ups appreciate clarity about the regime in the early stages of company formation.

To sum up, a holistic approach to entrepreneurship can be mutually beneficial for universities, entrepreneurs who start out in academia and industry. And with motivated and connected experts dedicated to facilitating different types of relationships, university-industry partnerships can lead to exceptional results.