For well over a century, industry and academia have represented two major catalysts driving innovation and research worldwide. Historically, both sectors have encouraged significant cross-pollination of ideas and expertise, helping some of the world’s greatest companies – such as technology giant Hewlett-Packard – to life-changing inventions and discoveries such as the double-helix structure of DNA.

The immense innovation potential innate to this form of cross-sector collaboration is a major draw for industrial enterprise. Growing market pressures in the wake of rapid advances in complex technology, along with increasingly restrictive and risk-averse corporate funding environments, have added additional impetus for industry to turn to academia to research and develop commercially viable products and technology that can provide companies with a sustainable competitive edge.

Man and Woman VR Headset

Collaborating to compete

It is this pursuit of a competitive edge that continues to prompt industrial corporations worldwide to turn to institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The iconic American university is among the elite echelon of academic institutions at the forefront of shaping the future of science, engineering and technology.

The MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), established in 1948, is among the world’s oldest industry-oriented partnership programmes, with almost 200 top global companies on board at present. “ILP aims to work closely with corporations to create mutually beneficial relationships that meet key strategic objectives – not just for the institutions involved, but for the greater good of industrial advancement and scientific discovery,” says Todd Glickman, Senior Associate Director, Corporate Relations at MIT.

For an annual membership fee of US$75,000, corporations can access the entire slew of MIT’s expertise, cutting across departments and disciplines in a holistic approach, unlike most industry-academic partnerships. According to Glickman, the anchor for all ILP engagements is the company’s long-term strategic approach. He adds: “When company CTOs meet us, we want to know that they’re eager to explore key developments in science, engineering or technology that could disrupt their industry in the next three to five years. MIT professors don’t want to solve problems that have already been solved because that’s not a challenge. We want to work with companies looking to shape the future.”

The case for commercialisation

The pharmaceutical sector was among one of the earliest industries to jump on board the collaboration train, despite very divergent intentions. “Historically, academia has been more focused on basic mechanisms and disease pathogenesis, and industry has been more focused on drug development and commercialisation,” explains Dr Gary Firestein, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Dean and Associate Vice Chancellor of Translational Medicine at University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine. “More recently, however, industry seeks academic partners for innovation related to novel targets to address urgent unmet medical needs.”

A case in point is pharmaceutical powerhouse Pfizer collaborating with UCSD in 2011 to accelerate the process of drug discovery, pushing the most promising treatments through the toughest phase of preclinical development and into early human trials. Housed under Pfizer’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation, the partnership saw almost US$50 million pumped into projects designed to leverage UCSD’s expertise in neurosciences, cancer, inflammation, metabolism, clinical pharmacology, HIV and pain.

For Pfizer, the collaboration was critical in order to replenish its depleting pipeline of patents for some of its best-selling drugs, such as Viagra and Lipitor. Moreover, the company pivoted from the typical ‘big pharma’ partnership approach, investing only in drug discoveries determined most viable by a panel of experts, with membership split among the drug-maker, UCSD and Sanford-Burnham. “The tendency for industry to heavily vet projects based on the potential for commercialisation is a mindset that needs to be more inculcated with researchers joining a corporate collaboration. Even if the science is outstanding, however, the project might not have the potential for commercial success, and this is an important lesson for many university-based researchers,” emphasised Dr Firestein.

Innovating for future growth

As some of the world’s most successful companies expand into new markets – especially across Asia and Latin America – developing products and technologies tailored to consumer demand in these growth markets entails a heavy investment in R&D. National universities in these countries, with regional or global repute, represent especially attractive candidates for a collaborative partnership.

“With Rolls-Royce as a pinnacle luxury brand, it is incumbent upon us to innovate and produce the best possible. In the words of our founder, Sir Henry Royce, ‘If it does not exist, design it’,” says Paul Harris, Asia Pacific Regional Director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Positioning the legendary brand for a technology-driven future was the main driver for the luxury automotive company’s Asia-Pacific division collaborating with Singapore’s Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP).

“Our partnership was a first-of-its-kind pilot project aimed at innovating a 3D virtual reality experience for customers, a relatively new platform for Rolls-Royce,” explains Harris. The resulting concepts were competitively selected through various pitching rounds, with winning ideas chosen for their ability to allow customers “to virtually experience the simulated world of Rolls-Royce Bespoke through immersive 360-degree motion graphics videos.” While enabling the luxury automobile maker to quickly experiment with a variety of 3D concepts, the collaboration also strengthened bonds with the local academic community and served as a form of corporate social responsibility by nurturing young, creative talent.

The rules of engagement

While industry-academic engagements adopt a number of operating models, some key partnership principles prove essential to their collaborative success: Relationship, Relevance, Review and Research Protection.

  1. Relationship: MIT ILP believes in a high-touch approach, assigning a relationship manager to each corporate partner. This officer conducts site visits to understand ground realities and is responsible for identifying the professors and programmes working on subject matter relevant to the partnership. Company leaders are invited to meet with researchers, and it is these collective conversations that determine the best approach.

  2. Relevance: Establishing clearly defined and mutually beneficial objectives is important when laying the groundwork for an industry-academic partnership. “Both Rolls-Royce and NYP committed time and energy across several meetings to arrive at a core sponsorship agreement; an important foundation for the work ahead,” noted Harris. Core objectives were also communicated to the participating students. “We had key senior personnel lead student briefings in order to educate them on the brand ethos and product detail, and to ensure their understanding of the base concepts.”

  3. Review: Regular review and monitoring mechanisms are essential for a successful partnership, affording an opportunity to assess necessary changes to project timelines, identify any roadblocks, clarify points of contention or eliminate inefficiency.

  4. Research protection: Corporations and universities would do well to negotiate intellectual property (IP) ownership upfront in the early stages of officiating a collaboration. “By virtue of US laws and regulations, all IP that is generated at MIT remains under the ownership of MIT,” shared Glickman. “While MIT has general licensing terms to allow companies to procure exclusive or non-exclusive licences for use of any IP generated, these terms are typically negotiated in advance.” Based on Glickman’s experience, most large companies choose not to take the IP that comes out of a partnership with MIT, as it can be very risky and not ready for market. “In this case, the IP leads to a spin-out company that undertakes early commercialisation of an idea before it goes to the mainstream market,” commented Glickman.

Most industry-academic collaborations appoint a joint steering committee with shared membership from both parties. “Projects are monitored by the joint steering committee and have well-defined benchmarks and milestones. This is commonplace in the industry, and academia needs to appreciate this way of conducting research,” shares Dr Firestein.

In the case of the Rolls-Royce and NYP partnership, the company also invited industry executives well versed in the VR field to monitor students’ progress and suggest any adjustments.

Regular monitoring also often reveals opportunities for partnership evolution or a shift in focus, to keep pace with industry developments. “Project topics have become less focused on individual technology. For example, the initial programme was solely for biologics but later expanded to small molecule agents. Rather than narrowing the focus, casting a larger net allows for projects to address unmet medical needs,” noted Dr Firestein.

Looking ahead: beyond borders

Currently, a third of MIT ILP members are based in North America, another third in Europe and the Middle East, and the remainder from emerging and growth markets – namely mainland China, India and South America. Glickman notes a 20 percent growth in members from these markets, a shift indicative of developing nations recognising the importance of open-source innovation and cross-sector collaboration. 

“With China, the last five years, in particular, has seen many major Chinese corporations investing in growing their global competitiveness,” observes Glickman. “There is an improved understanding of open-source innovation and the value in working with established academic partners to help them develop their technology as they aim to become global forces to be reckoned with.”

In Glickman’s view, when it comes to American multinationals, “the increasing geopolitical importance, economic power and technological capabilities of countries like China and India are motivating them to partner with MIT and leverage our global reach in these key markets”.

As both universities and corporations across the world continue to forge new partnerships, it’s clear that cross-sector collaboration remains an integral part of both corporate and national innovation agendas. Eventually, this will level the playing field in terms of the quality and complexity of innovation in our increasingly connected world.

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