Developing Successful Strategic Partnerships With Universities

  • Lars Frølund, Fiona Murray, and Max Riedel
  • December 06, 2017

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. In our research, we have found that both corporations and universities confront a general level of frustration and a mismatch in culture and governance when they collaborate.