Obviously that depends upon the company, but the diverse trio brought together to discuss this issue for the Collaboration Skills Initiative discussed viewpoints from companies all the way from start-ups to research-intensive multinationals.
Charles Boulton, who has consulted widely and is now R&D Director of an SME, Chris Rider, who today works as an academic and as a consultant to start-ups and was with Kodak during a pivotal period of their journey, and Anna -Marie Greenaway who heads BP’s relationships with Cambridge University discussed the question (under Chatham House rules) in a workshop of about 30 people from across the School of Technology.
The panel was chaired by Tim Minshall who began by introducing the idea of “extrospective skills” from his colleague, Letizia Mortara (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/uploads/Resources/Briefings/v1n4_ifm_briefing.pdf); those skills that enable one to look outside and to see your world from another person’s perspective. Letizia’s and Tim’s research into open innovation shows these extrospective skills to be vital to success – did the panel agree?
In a wide ranging discussion there emerged some common themes and some useful differences.
A common message is that relationships matter, networking matters and breadth of interest matters. Each of the speakers discussed the value that industry sees from partnerships with academics who can network across disciplines and help to find the right people to address an industry problem. Relationships such as these are typically built over years and, as they mature, they allow industry to discuss interesting questions and problems with trusted academics. Sometimes this turns into valuable research. Sometimes, even more valuably, the academic explores a wider or deeper question – and this challenge of the choice of question is greatly appreciated. Such reframing can profoundly change the direction of work and its ultimate success. Answering a question from the floor, the panel’s view was that success in building relationships depends upon an individual academic’s personal breadth of perspective as well as the breadth and richness of their network.
Strong networks of personal relationships also make the link between a company and its academic partners more resilient against, for example economic downturn that might cause a pause in research or the move of an individual to another role. By keeping multiple parallel links, especially across several disciplines, partnerships can be forged that start from small and exploratory projects to grow to large and broad undertakings.
Good research projects are a matter of both topic and timing. A good topic but at the wrong time will not be pursued. So an important part of building and maintaining a long-term relationship is the capacity to wait for the time to be right to pick up a good topic identified earlier. An idea ahead of its time won’t be a good research project.
The R&D group in a company has to compete internally for resources, so anything an academic can do to help the case is very valuable. Having got the funding then the commercial champion will have to decide where it is focused and how best to get value for the company. Often this is about transferring capabilities from academia to industry but there may be other things that attract industry to work with academia – exchange of ideas, new perspectives on problems (the art of the good question), recruitment and to have access to a small group of excellent people, some of whom may want to move to the company. Some companies are beginning to focus on recruiting postdocs and are exploring how to make this work as well as possible.
Employing academics researchers is expensive, costing as much as or more than an employee once overheads are added in. So the industrial partner really needs to see value and successful delivery. (Or, please, the earliest possible warning if things are not going well). Only in this way can the funding continue to be defended inside the company.
The best research combines the skills of academia and the skills of industry, so complementary teams are the most powerful and give superb results for both industry and academia. The flexibility needed for this, especially in introducing new people to the relationship, is key to success and the most valued academics are skilled at bringing in the most appropriate colleagues from other disciplines.
One question from the floor opened up debate on how best to start a relationship. The panel preferred beginning with small projects to minimise risk while the partnership builds maturity and trust. Starting with student projects enables both sides to learn about the other. It can help both the industrial and the academic partner to explore new areas of potential collaboration at low risk. (And it might provide recruitment and job opportunities).
The open days held by University departments are a valuable opportunity to showcase capabilities and a good way to broaden discussions. Although very competitive, the Innovate UK schemes now provide funding support under rules (https://interact.innovateuk.org/guidance-for-applicants) that make collaborative projects more attractive to industry.
What about the differences of opinion among the panel – where there is a diversity of views from industry? IP was the most significant example. Industrial attitudes to IP depend upon the company and may even vary across the company. They depend upon the industry, its maturity, the position of the company in the industry and even the culture of the company. Common concerns are shared, for example of a competitor getting access to or control of valuable IP. But the upside value of IP may be immense, for example to underpin a new business venture or as the “crown jewels” of a start-up. In some companies, however, the concern is to build the market and then widespread dissemination of the knowledge may be more important. Sometimes the absence of protection may drive an industriial partner away – why would a company want to support research when the foundation intellectual property is unprotected, exposing them to the risk of being bypassed by a competitor and being unable to defend their investment. Framework agreements enable individual collaborations to be designed and initiated more quickly and efficiently. But, in the worst case, slow and frustrating IP negotiation can be a show-stopper.
In closing, Charles asked academics to be aware that individuals within their industrial partners may be taking career risks with the research project and the alliance with a university. The failure of the project or a failure of the university partner to deliver on time and as expected could blight the pay, the prospects and the career of a person in industry. Anna Marie responded by pointing out that this responsibility is two-way – that academics have their careers to manage and that, in so many ways, industrial responsiveness and consideration can make or break an academic career. So both parties need to see the world from the other’s perspective.
Which brought the discussion full circle back to Tim’s opening remarks about extrospective skills – maybe these are the most important attributes within both academia and industry for collaboration to flourish.