For many companies, universities have become essential innovation partners. However, companies often struggle to establish and run university partnerships effectively.

Collaborations between companies and universities are critical drivers of the innovation economy. These relationships have long been a mainstay of corporate research and development (R&D) — from creating the knowledge foundations for the next generation of solutions, to serving as an extended “workbench” to solve short-term, incremental problems, to providing a flow of newly minted talent. As many corporations look to open innovation to augment their internal R&D efforts, universities have become essential partners. Indeed, companies now look to universities to anchor an increasingly broad set of innovation activities, especially those grounded in engaging with regional innovation ecosystems. Silicon Valley, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Block 71 in Singapore are among the most visible innovation ecosystems where universities are essential stakeholders in an innovation community that also includes corporations, government entities, venture investors, and entrepreneurs. Thus, in addition to serving as sources of people and ideas for corporations, university collaborations are an important mechanism for corporations seeking to open up new avenues of engagement with a broader innovation ecosystem.

Following corporate giants like General Electric, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, and IBM, which have collaborated with universities for years, a variety of younger companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber are using universities as a key part of their early-stage innovation and new ventures strategy.1 Even smaller, more regionally oriented companies in diverse sectors such as mining and automotive have come to believe that universities are key ecosystem stakeholders in supporting and shaping their regional economies. For example, IQE plc, a compound semiconductor company based in Cardiff, U.K., supports a regional innovation ecosystem through its collaborative relationship with Cardiff University. The partners have developed a translational research facility to train scientists and technicians in compound semiconductor technologies and support an R&D facility to help U.K. businesses exploit advances in these technologies. Such collaborations between corporations and universities foster the innovation ecosystem.

While the aspirations of university-industry partnerships can be easily described, many companies find it challenging to establish and run these partnerships effectively, even when key financial resources and human capital are available. The challenge is amplified in an ecosystem where the various stakeholders, all with their own ambitions, need to be properly aligned to achieve impact.

References

1. An example of the partnerships is the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. See http://mitibmwatsonailab.mit.edu.

2. M. Perkmann and A. Salter, “How to Create Productive Partnerships With Universities,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 4 (summer 2012): 79-88.

3. D.E. Sanger, “Corporate Links Worry Scholars,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1982, www.nytimes.com; and University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science, “Celebrating 25th Anniversary of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Solid Mechanics,” n.d., www.eng.ox.ac.uk.

4. Perkmann and Salter, “How to Create Productive Partnerships.”

5. “The University of British Columbia and Cisco Collaborate on Smart+ Connected Buildings and Smart Energy,” press release, May 27, 2013, https:// newsroom.cisco.com.

6. E. Redden, “From Beijing to Puget Sound,” Inside Higher Ed, June 19, 2015, www.insidehighered.com.

7. Siemens, for example, has created an organization of internal and university-based relationship managers to run their strategic programs (Centers of Knowledge Interchange, or CKI) with universities. For an example of a CKI university and some activities of the program, see http://cki.rwth-aachen.de/en. More information is available at www.siemens.com.

8. The “university partnership canvas” is inspired by the “business model canvas” developed by A. Osterwalder and Y. Pigneur in their book “Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers” (New York: Wiley, 2010).

i. See http://reap.mit.edu.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the following people for giving us insights into university relations and for many productive discussions (presented alphabetically by affiliation name): John Westensee and Anette Miltoft from Aarhus University; Louise Leong and Joe de Sousa from AstraZeneca; Nicole Eichmeier and Mirjam Storim from BMW; Ciro Acedo Boria, Alberto Lopez-Oleaga, and Manuel Martines Alonso from Ferrovial; Michel Benard from Google; Alessandro Curioni and Chris Sciacca from IBM; Karsten Keller from Nitto Avecia; Søren Bregenholt and Uli Stilz from Novo Nordisk; Kate Barnard and Mark Jefferies from Rolls-Royce; Rajiv Dhawan from Samsung; Najib Abusalbi from Schlumberger; and Natascha Eckert from Siemens. Finally, we would like to thank the participants in the seminar “Success Factors for University Partnerships,” who tested our university partnership canvas and gave us very valuable feedback.