Universities can be major resources in a company’s innovation strategy. But to extract the most business value from research, companies need to follow these seven rules.
Most previous studies of industry-university collaboration have framed the analysis of such partnerships in terms of research project outcomes, defined here as a result that creates an opportunity for a company, such as guidance for the direction of technology development. From a business standpoint, however, research outcome is of only incidental importance. What matters is not outcome but impact — how the new knowledge derived from a collaboration with a university can contribute to a company’s performance. Are new products made possible? New and more effective manufacturing processes? Novel kinds of computer hardware or software that enable greater logistical efficiencies? Patentable materials, designs or processes that enhance competitive advantage?
Managers see working with academia as beneficial only to the extent that it advances the company toward its goals. The focus of our research, therefore, was on the impact of the collaboration on company products, processes or people, as evaluated both by the direct industry managers of university projects and by senior technical personnel with a view across projects. While constructing industry-university agreements is an important, and often lengthy, precursor to the collaboration, this article is concerned with specifically how those collaborations can best be carried out once the agreements are in place. In particular, we sought to determine, in a measurable way, “best practices” for the selection process — the management and the development of relationships that enable a company to capitalize on a research partnership with a university.
To identify these best practices, we surveyed more than 100 projects at 25 multinational companies that engage in research collaborations with a broad base of universities; a dozen of those projects involved collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (See “About the Research.”) We targeted companies with substantial experience that allowed us to tap the accumulated knowledge of experienced managers in companies with successful track records in utilizing university research.