Choosing Your Perfect University Partner: A Strategic Approach

As companies progress in their open innovation journey, they often look to establish strategic partnerships with selected universities.

While many companies have a variety of ‘one-off’ or single-area university engagements, a strategic partnership is differentiated as having a deeper, more formalized and more multi-faceted thrust.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will define these strategic partnerships as multi-faceted, on-going engagements with a formalized or explicit governance structure that includes multiple touchpoints at the university and the company. In many cases these partnerships include setting of shared goals for future directions that are informed by mutually beneficial long-term strategy.  

The Roadmap to Success: A Structured Approach

While there is no simple formula to establish such a partnership, a structured process where needs and objectives for the partnership are developed in advance is highly recommended. The outcome from this strategic visioning process can then be used to engage and ultimately select prospective partners as well as to assure alignment within your company. 

For the strategic visioning process, the key issues can be grouped into two large buckets: 1) Overarching/high-level (vision and structure) issues and 2) Project/program (research execution) issues. The former category focuses on the issues such as vision, governance and key partnership terms while the later focuses on likely areas for engagement and fit with corporate needs. For all of these factors these definitions will be fluid and subject to adjustment based on discussions – both internal and external – with stakeholders. 

Overarching High-Level issues

Partnership Objective

First and foremost, the objective of the strategic partnership should be defined. A non-exhaustive list of options include: 

  • Supporting existing internal research programs 
  • Breakthrough research/innovation 
  • Access to new thinking
  • New capabilities (facilities, approaches etc.) 
  • Recruiting
  • Government/community relations

For each of these areas that are deemed high-priority, firm-specific definitions and criteria should be developed. 

Governance and Structural Considerations 

Once the objective and vision are set, developing a view of how this will be accomplished is necessary. These are likely to be one of the more fluid areas in the process and subject to negotiation but having a good starting point helps frame the discussions. Among the factors to consider are: 

  • How will interactions be managed? This should be defined at both the overall partnership and individual project level. 
  • How does this structure link into the university structure? 
  • How likely and important is IP in the anticipated research projects? Will pre-negotiated IP terms be necessary, or is a process where they are determined later be acceptable? Will an option for exclusivity be needed or is non-exclusive (NERF) access acceptable?  
  • How will project needs be communicated? Will there be a formalized Request for Proposal (RFP) process or will projects be defined ‘organically’ via faculty/company personnel interactions?
  • How actively engaged will firm personnel be in research and status reviews? (Frequent, periodic, only at project completion) Will this require in-person meetings or can remote/networked tools be used? 
  • Will confidential company information be exchanged in projects? If so what type of information and what are the boundaries? 
  • Will funding be exclusively from the firm, or will the partnership seek external funds? 
  • Are there any specific skills or capabilities that the firm wants to help the partner develop? This can range from specific technical capabilities to supporting students with developing skills of interest to industry such as safety, communication, and team skills. 
  • What is the commitment that the company expects to bring to the partnership in terms of financial, human and intellectual resources? Over what period?  

To further refine the selection criteria, you may want to either rank order or categorize the criteria in terms of ‘must haves’, ‘nice to haves’ and ‘not needed.’

Project/Program Issues

Field and Scope of Research Engagement

In conjunction with the vision activity a view should be developed of likely areas of engagement and high priority needs that would be addressed in the partnership. Factors to consider for this part of the exercise include: 

  • What are the key areas (by department, discipline and/or college) where anticipated sponsored research will occur? 
  • Are there emerging areas of interest or important capability needs? (Examples from the chemical/materials space include atomic microscopy, neutron analysis, as well as unique modeling or testing capabilities.) 
  • Will projects involve ‘side-by-side’ (hands-on) interactions in each other’s facilities or will interactions be arms-length? Are projects going to involve multiple faculty or individual faculty? If side-by-side engagement is envisioned, which organization’s processes (e.g. safety) are to be followed should be defined. 

The Engagement Plan: Finding the Right Partner

While the vision and governance will be crucial to university discussions, the first consideration should be on developing a list of potential partner universities based on desired technical capabilities. Many of these universities may already be known to the firm, but an objective process that considers universities beyond ‘the usual suspects’ is highly recommended. There are a number of sources for ranking and evaluating universities. Ones that I have found particularly useful are the National Academies of Science, the Leiden Global Rankings, Shanghai Rankings as well as discipline-specific rankings. Most of these sources can be used in multiple formats to allow ranking by factors such as publication, external funding, alumni success, etc. Each of these ranking systems have strengths and weaknesses and have a decidedly academic orientation but are useful data points when comparing potential partners. Additional detail on potential partners can be obtained via internet searches, looking a university and department web information and tools such as Web of Science. Depending on your needs, other factors may be included in this assessment. Such factors include department size (faculty, undergrad, grad & post-doc), since a larger department will present more potential vectors of engagement, student demographics that may support company DEI goals, commercialization history, and external funding (both government and industrial).  Finally, company experience at the institution may be considered – in particular, how this relates to goal alignment and friendliness towards industry. While prior experience with universities is important, the process described above will lead to identification of additional candidates, which should be included in the process and objectively evaluated. 

Building Your Dream Team

With a list of potential partner schools developed, now the discussions can start at multiple levels. For the overarching questions, discussions need to be held with the university administration. While tech transfer/sponsored research are important in the process, discussions with higher level administrators (vice chancellor or similar level) are essential to assure alignment on vision and authority to execute an agreement. To have a productive discussion at this level of the university often requires similar engagement of appropriate high-level executives at your firm in order to reinforce the commitment to the vision. 

In parallel with these discussions, engagement at the department and faculty level should be held. In these conversations ideas are exchanged regarding possible research areas and interest at both institutions. These discussions will typically involve representative faculty and administration at the university and technical leaders along with domain experts (senior scientists) from the company. 

Over time a picture will emerge on whether there is the necessary technical overlap with research needs along with compatible visions for the partnership. In most cases a winnowing down of candidates with multiple discussions with potential partners is necessary. Ultimately the goal is to find a partner that has both the needed capabilities along with a vision and culture aligned with yours.  

A Lasting Partnership

Remember that the output from the above work should be considered living documents that can, and should, be refined and revisited frequently. Throughout the process a clear view of the vision in terms of ‘what good looks like’ and criteria (both qualitative and quantitative) that will be used to determine value created by the partnership. These criteria will not only be important in the engagement and selection process but ultimately be used to assess partnership progress.  

Finally keep in mind that the thing that makes university-industry partnerships so valuable is diverse thinking. Diversity of thought and attitude is one of the benefits of these partnerships and should be embraced. Thus, the goal should be to find cultures and attitudes which are compatible but not identical.

Have fun and Godspeed on the journey! 

Stewart Witzeman

UI Collab

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