Best Practices for Industry-University Collaboration

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.

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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.



1. C. Ailes, D. Roessner and I. Feller, “The Impact on Industry of Interaction with Engineering Research Centers” (Arlington, Virginia: SRI International, 1997).

2. M.D. Santoro and S.C. Betts, “Making Industry-University Partnerships Work,” Research-Technology Management 45, no. 3 (May 2002): 42-46.

3. T.J. Allen, “Managing the Flow of Technology” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984).

4. D. Ancona, H. Bresman and K. Kaeufer, “The Comparative Advantage of X-Teams,” MIT Sloan Management Review 43, no. 3 (spring 2002): 33-39; and R. Reagans and E.W. Zuckerman, “Networks, Diversity, and Productivity: The Social Capital of Corporate R&D Teams,” Organization Science 12, no. 4 (July 2001): 502-517.

5. R. Reagans and B. McEvily, “Network Structure and Knowledge Transfer: The Effects of Cohesion and Range,” Administrative Science Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2003): 240-267.

6. Allen, “Managing the Flow.”

7. M. Polanyi, “The Tacit Dimension” (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966).

8. Reagans, “Network Structure and Knowledge Transfer.”

9. Y. Berra, “The Yogi Book” (New York: Workman Publishing, 1999), 121.


The companies that participated in this study provided us access to information concerning their interactions with universities and were frank and forthright in sharing their best practices with us. Some of these companies have created true win-win collaborations with university partners. We also acknowledge the contributions during the early stages of this project of Nick Oliver of Edinburgh University and David Roessner of SRI International. Financial support for the research was provided by the Cambridge-MIT Institute and by the Kauffman Foundation. Julio A. Pertuzé would also like to acknowledge the support of a Fulbright fellowship.

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Comments (3)
Abdul Faiz Ahmad Shaikh
In my view R&D should have to be implemented in every colleges and universities for the better innovations of Technologies.
Craig Boardman
One thing I am surprised that the research revealed nothing about is the university side of the transaction. Many times it is the academic reward template that sees university-based investigators deviating from the interests of industry clients. This could be a selection issue, given that the study only targeted firm-based project managers. There is a lot more to learn from the management practices of university-industry centers (e.g., NSF IUCRCs, ERCs), which are incorrectly characterized in the article as government-mediated university-industry interactions. While programs like those at the NSF provide funding, it is up to the investigators to recruit and retain industry members and to develop joint projects (or lose agency support).
HAOUR Georges
As you say, nothing new in these 7 (why not 6 ?) good practices...
- however, I am surprised that geo. proximity is so unimportant. I'd like to know more on this
- firms & universities should much better develop effective innovation projects, correct ?
-it is OK to reference non-MIT authors.. 
- you may want to read the forthcoming best seller
Georges Haour