Leave This to the Professionals: The Advantages of a Professional Corporate Staff for Managing U-I R&D Collaborations

When it comes to optimizing management of university-industry (U-I) research and development (R&D) collaborations for a company, it's crucial to understand the advantages of employing professional corporate staff.

In this blog post, we will explore the various models of managing these collaborations and why having a dedicated professional can make all the difference.

Understanding University-Industry R&D Collaboration Models

In the realm of U-I R&D, the approach to staffing varies widely between companies. Most US research universities already have professional staff responsible for coordinating U-I collaborations, and they tend to operate similarly. After 20 years of benchmarking over 50 different companies in more than 100 sessions, it’s clear that each company adopts an almost unique approach.

Initially, U-I R&D interactions tend to be at the researcher-researcher level. Over time as U-I R&D grows in scope, and unfortunately, often when problems arise, the need for dedicated staff oversight, becomes clear. This almost always starts with a single individual.

“Eve” is the first person at the company with dedicated responsibility for U-I R&D oversight. Let’s delve into the 5 different models I’ve seen:

The Evolved Researcher

As U-I R&D grows, one of the researchers who has been successful, volunteers to take responsibility on a part or full-time basis.

  • Advantages:
    • Eve often holds a PhD and understands the academic environment.
    • She’s successfully completed U-I R&D therefore offers tactical insight.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Researchers are rarely well-informed on strategic corporate priorities or the business realities that concern executive leadership.
    • This role requires a broad skill set, researchers are usually specialists.
    • For this approach to work, Eve needs an exceptional level of business acumen, diplomacy, and executive access.
  • Conclusion
    • This model can only succeed when Eve makes a clean break with her past career and dedicates herself fully and long term to this vastly different, more generalized role. 

The Temporary Executive

When a company has made an explicit high-level determination to begin U-I R&D, a temporary executive, often close to retirement, is appointed.

  • Advantages:
    • Assigning an executive signals high-level corporate commitment and funding.
    • Eve wields significant high-level influence.
    • This quickly leads to staffing expansion as Eve is accustomed to delegating.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Ambitious executives typically do not see this role as career enhancing.
    • Eve’s tenure is usually short – at most two years, leading to commitment disruptions.
  • Conclusion:
    • Despite initial advantages, the situation simply doesn’t last long enough for the executive to learn the strategic lessons, develop best practices, and establish the continuity needed for long term success.

Distributed Responsibility (Committee)

Some companies go through a stage in which a committee oversees U-I R&D. Once the activities grow, Eve is hired, and the committee becomes more advisory or disbands. 

  • Advantages:
    • Wide exposure of U-I R&D
    • Low individual workload
  • Disadvantages:
    • Committees tend to be slow, indecisive, and lack ownership and passion.
    • There is no defined point of contact for universities.
    • The committee may continue to advise, giving Eve too many bosses.
  • Conclusion:
    • I have found this model to be rare, ineffective, and usually transitional. 


This model envisions leadership of U-I R&D as an assignment people rotate through to “get their ticket punched,” rather than a career role. 

  • Advantages:
    • Several people rotate through the position and, if the company has good employee retention, there’s a growing base of people with at least basic understanding of U-I R&D
  • Disadvantages: 
    • This is always seen as merely a steppingstone to a future assignment.
    • Undermines the relationship development that is necessary for durable, trust-based, and successful long-term relationships with universities.
    • Poor institutional memory
  • Conclusion:
    • These rotations usually last 1-2 years, far too short to learn, gain mastery, develop best practices, and pass them on.

The Dedicated Professional

Spoiler alert! This has proven to be decisively, the best model. Choosing the right Eve for this role is very important. Eve usually needs a credible research pedigree to earn the respect of scientists. She also needs a high degree of business acumen, understanding of executive leadership’s goals, what success looks like, and how it will be measured. Eve needs to be highly diplomatic and culturally sensitive given the vast differences between companies and universities in mission, culture, language, incentives, etc. 

  • Advantages:
    • Carefully selected for the required mix of business, legal, technical, and diplomatic skills
    • Undivided attention
    • Consistent long-term leadership necessary to: 
      • Form trust-based, durable U-I relationships.
      • Develop and disseminate best practices.
      • To learn what works, given the long project cycle time (2-5 yr.) from conception through implementation and return on investment.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Eve is a broad generalist working among specialists.
    • Eve is not executive level and has influence rather than power.
    • It is difficult to convince a high performer that this long-term role is career enhancing.


I have observed that the most successful Eve is typically a seasoned mid or late career professional who values autonomy and intellectual stimulation more than climbing the corporate ladder. It is desirable for Eve to perform this role for at least five years, the longer the better.

I was fortunate to enjoy a long tenure growing and leading U-I R&D at a major global company in the top tier of U-I R&D investment. I had the opportunity to hire and help develop numerous capable professionals. Initially their view was, “This isn’t rocket science. It’s not going to take me long to figure this out.” Without exception, this proved to be false. These people were bright and balanced in their technical and business acumen, but it took about three years for the pieces to fall into place, followed by a continued steep learning curve for many years.

Along the way I found that the highest value U-I R&D mechanisms were “Alliances” governed by a master agreement with a defined point person at both the company and university, in which the company invested millions of dollars over many years. Forming and successfully managing these relationships can only be achieved with the continuity and experience that comes from dedicated professional staff. Or, to put in starkly business terms, the only way a company becomes good enough that U-I R&D to generate a return on investment is by having a dedicated U-I R&D staff.

So, when it comes to managing your company’s university-industry R&D collaborations, trust the professionals. Choosing the right Eve, and giving her the autonomy to succeed, can yield a great return on investment.

Ed Krause

UI Collab

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