Too often, companies pursue collaboration with university researchers in an ad hoc, piecemeal manner. But by giving more thought to the relationship structure, companies can achieve better results.

Companies increasingly recognize that to successfully innovate they cannot exclusively rely on their internal R&D. Working with external partners allows them to access different pools of knowledge and save R&D costs.1 Universities are among the external partners that offer high promise, since they allow access to an enormous global pool of talent and skills.

Sometimes managers think dealing with universities equals only “technology transfer.” While the use of university-owned intellectual property2 has spurred much innovation in business, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Rather than merely licensing inventions, another often-underappreciated opportunity for companies is to get help from universities during the whole life cycle of their innovation projects.3 For example, in the United Kingdom, businesses already spend more than 20 times more on university collaboration than on licensing technology from universities.4

However, working with universities poses considerable challenges for managers.5 Two fundamental issues afflict collaboration. First, the open nature of academic science is at times in conflict with companies’ need to protect technologies they use. Second, while academic research focuses on long-term challenges and thus may move more slowly, industrial R&D is driven by time-sensitive product development projects and day-to-day project solving. As a result, companies can sometimes find universities too slow and too bureaucratic to be good partners. Given that in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, expenditures on higher education R&D represent about $160 billion per annum, businesses that don’t work with universities may be missing opportunities of significant proportions.6

These tensions are exacerbated by the fact that companies’ collaborations with universities are often pursued in an ad hoc, piecemeal manner, led by individual initiatives rather than any corporate strategy. Managers who would never dream of leaving their customer or supplier relationships to chance may take an ad hoc approach to their university relationships, which can lead to duplication of effort, lost opportunities or squabbles over intellectual property.

Our research suggests that businesses can structure their relationships with universities in ways that make them much more valuable. (See “About the Research.


1. H. Chesbrough, “Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting From Technology” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

2. Patents represent the commercially most important type of intellectual property for universities.

3. W.M. Cohen, R.R. Nelson and J.P. Walsh, “Links and Impacts: The Influence of Public Research on Industrial R&D,” Management Science 48, no. 1 (January 2002): 1-23.

4. See official U.K. figures at

5. R. Wright, “How to Get the Most From University Relationships,” MIT Sloan Management Review 49, no. 3 (spring 2008): 75-80.

6. Calculated from OECD figures, according to which, in the OECD area, higher education expenditure on R&D (HERD) equaled 0.4% of GDP in 2009. See OECD, “OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011” (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011).

7. D. Partha and P.A. David, “Toward a New Economics of Science,” Research Policy 23, no. 5 (September 1994): 487-521.

8. See

9. See

10. See

11. See

12. C. Sheridan, “Industry Continues Dabbling With Open Innovation Models,” Nature Biotechnology 29, no. 12 (December 2011): 1063-1065.

13. See

14. K.J. Boudreau and K.R. Lakhani, “How to Manage Outside Innovation,” MIT Sloan Management Review 50, no. 4 (summer 2009): 68-76.

15. See

16. S. Lohr, “IBM and U.S. Universities Work to Open Up Software Research,” International Herald Tribune, Dec. 14, 2006.

17. See

18. Association of University Technology Managers, “The AUTM Transaction Survey: FY2009” (Deerfield, Illinois: 2011).

19. On technology transfer, see D. Mowery, R. Nelson, B. Sampat and A. Ziedonis “Ivory Tower and Industrial Innovation: University-Industry Technology Transfer Before and After the Bayh-Dole Act” (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2004); and M. Wright, B. Clarysse, P. Mustar and A. Lockett, “Academic Entrepreneurship in Europe” (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 2007).

20. W.C. Johnson “The Collaborative Imperative,” in “Universities and Business: Partnering for the Knowledge Society,” eds. L.E. Weber and J.J. Duderstadt (London: Economica, 2006): 99-111.

21. National Council of University Research Administrators, “Guiding Principles for University-Industry Endeavors” (Washington, D.C.: 2006).

22. See

23. S. Krimsky, “Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?” (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

24. E. Press and J. Washburn, “The Kept University,” Atlantic Monthly 285, no. 3 (March 2000): 39-54.

25. P. D’Este, and M. Perkmann, “Why Do Academics Engage With Industry? The Entrepreneurial University and Individual Motivations,” Journal of Technology Transfer 36, no. 3 (June 2011): 316-339. Our research suggests that it is premature to assume that academic research teams increasingly act as “quasi-firms”: see H. Etzkowitz, “Research Groups as ‘Quasi-firms’: The Invention of the Entrepreneurial University,” Research Policy 32, no. 1(January 2003): 109-121.

26. L.G. Zucker and M.R. Darby, “Star Scientists and Institutional Transformation: Patterns of Invention and Innovation in the Formation of the Biotechnology Industry,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93, no. 23 (Nov, 12, 1996): 12709-12716.

i. For results of a survey of U.K. physical and engineering scientists, see D’Este and Perkmann, “Why Do Academics Engage With Industry?”; for results of a survey of companies collaborating with U.K. scientists, see J. Bruneel, P. D’Este, A. Neely and A. Salter, “The Search for Talent and Technology: Examining the Attitudes of EPSRC Industrial Collaborators Towards Universities” AIM Academic Publication. (London: Advanced Institute of Management Research, 2009). See also A. Salter, V. Tartari, P. D’Este and A. Neely “The Republic of Engagement: Exploring UK Academic Attitudes to Collaborating With Industry and Entrepreneurship,” Advanced Institute of Management Research and U.K. Innovation Research Centre, August 2010, downloadable from; and J. Bruneel, P. D’Este and A. Salter, “Investigating the Factors That Diminish the Barriers to University-Industry Collaboration,” Research Policy 39, no. 7 (September 2010): 858-868.

ii. M. Perkmann and K. Walsh, “The Two Faces of Collaboration: Impacts of University-Industry Relations on Public Research,” Industrial and Corporate Change 18, no. 6 (December 2009): 1033-1065.

iii. M. Dodgson, D.M. Gann and A. Salter, “In Case of Fire, Please Use the Elevator: Simulation Technology and Organization in Fire Engineering,” Organization Science 18, no. 5 (September-October 2007): 849-864.


We acknowledge support from the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council via the Advanced Institute of Management Research (RES-331-27-0063 and EP/C534239/1), the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council via the Innovation Studies Centre (EP/F036930/1) and the UK Innovation Research Centre (RES-598-28-0001), which is funded by the ESRC, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the U.K. Department for Business Innovation & Skills and the Technology Strategy Board.

3 Comments On: How to Create Productive Partnerships With Universities

  • Contribution from Universities for Open Innovation - Social Innovation PlatformSocial Innovation Platform | September 19, 2014

    […] Nokia Research Centre actively engages in open innovation through strategic academic partnerships with leading institutions like MIT, Stanford, and University of California etc. The company […]

  • Reza Putra | April 13, 2016

    “Third, the emphasis in managing the project should be on the results. But the academics should be given flexibilities in defining the objectives.” How do we achieve that?

  • John Greer | April 7, 2017

    This article seems like window dressing. Like an extensive news article that just summarizes the current situation and doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

    At the end of the day, everyone is selfish and they will only work together if there is something in it for them. I don’t say this to be cynical but to explore this idea to its fullest.

    Partnerships will only work when both sides are compensated in the SHORT term (while the long term is the goal). What do university professors/researchers really want? (grant money for their next study, a study that leads to as many citations as possible which usually means the study has no practical applications, prestige, etc.) (These priorities need to change btw) What do the corporations want? Research results that they can use in the next few months. How do you align these disparate interests?

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