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A guide to university-industry collaboration for early career researchers

While many research projects have been completed from start to finish within university labs, there are numerous benefits to working with industry for academic researchers. Certain types of projects would be very difficult or even impossible to run without researchers from the two sectors sharing resources. The exchange of knowledge and expertise is also important for more innovative research. Research projects can be progressed more quickly through industry collaborations. But also, rapidly translating university research into real-world applications can be vital, as the COVID-19 situation has shown, in which industry has played a critical role in deploying solutions and treatments. 

Contrary to popular belief amongst academics, for whom publications are a necessary priority, much of the research done with industry does lead to publication. In 2019, the Times Higher Education reported on a study which found that half of the journal articles from industry-based research groups in the USA were a result of university-industry collaborations, and that these elicited higher citation rates than those of university researchers alone. Therefore, far from companies holding a power position in projects, industry-academia partnerships are mutually beneficial.

For academics in the UK, some of the reasons commercialisation is in the spotlight are the recently piloted Knowledge Exchange Framework, the ongoing requirement of academic institutes to demonstrate ‘Impact’ in the Research Excellence Framework, and the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, of which university-industry collaboration is a cornerstone. Collaborating with industry can be looked upon favourably as one of the ways of increasing impact.

What forms can university-industry collaboration take?

There are numerous ways in which university and industry researchers can collaborate. It might be to test or validate a breakthrough before further development, to explore new research avenues with facilities or equipment not immediately accessible, or more generally, to gain from the exchange of expertise. Industry sponsorship of standalone PhD and Postdoctoral projects is well known.  There are also long-term strategic partnerships that support a range of collaborative research and funding. Consultancy is another route to collaboration in which researchers advise on industry (or even cultural) projects.

For early career researchers (ECRs), such collaborations can be a valuable insight into the high expectations and standards of industry, which differ significantly from academic labs. A collaboration or placement with a company can provide access to new resources, expertise, and approaches to conducting research – an experience that can be valuable in many ways career-wise, including the opportunity to make useful connections for future collaborations.

Having an industry partner with different yet complementary capabilities is generally a good way to create the sort of interesting, application-driven research proposal that gets the attention of funders, and collaboration with industry is increasingly being encouraged by research funding councils, with various joint funding opportunities on offer. This funding could be used to establish networking opportunities, travel between labs, and for specialised equipment for collaborative use. Some opportunities support the temporary movement of academic researchers to industry via secondments. 

However, finding a suitable collaborator in industry can be a challenge. And this is one of the reasons why IN-PART was created – to simplify the initial connection between relevant teams in academia and industry. A tool like this provides a means to showcase early-stage research and technologies from universities to a verified, global network of decision makers in R&D-driven companies, with the aim of partnering with industry teams who are looking to academia for solutions.

The role of the technology transfer office

Most research-intensive universities and institutes have an office that’s responsible for protecting intellectual property developed within their university and commercialising it in a way that generates impact of the research and derives a financial return for the institute. These offices often have different names depending where they’re based. In the US they’re generally called technology transfer offices (TTOs) or offices of research commercialization. In the UK they often come under the umbrella of ‘research and innovation services’, ‘IP and commercialisation’, or ‘business engagement’. 

The role of a ‘TTO’ generally involves identifying research projects with commercial potential and aiding their route to commercialisation for the benefit of society. TTO staff (technology transfer professionals) are skilled at conducting a whole range of specialist activities including the management of patents, negotiating licensing deals and research agreements, creating spin-out companies, and marketing new technologies. 

Although processes vary between universities, for researchers the usual first step on the path to commercialisation is to approach their TTO about their research or an idea. This is likely to involve the submission of a brief outline of the research and its potential applications. The TTO can then assess the stage of the project and assist with the next steps, such as determining the market and competitor landscape, and what project development is likely to be required to progress. If it’s found that there’s a gap in the market and that the research outcomes are unique, the intellectual property (IP) surrounding the breakthrough will often be protected with a patent application.   

When the TTO makes the decision to start looking for industry partners for a project, a ‘technology disclosure’ is usually written up – a short summary designed to market the opportunity to industry. TTOs that work with IN-PART publish these disclosures on the platform, making them available to view by a network of R&D teams in over 5,500 companies who are actively looking for new research. The conversations with and feedback received from these companies often also helps to identify any gaps or opportunities from the industry perspective.

Sometimes, the decision might be made by a TTO to ‘spin-out’ a company based around the research, depending on factors such as the stage of development, the technology’s applications and the knowledge/suitability of the team behind it. There’s also the option for academics to ‘go it alone’, which offers less dilution of any financial returns (as TTOs will often require a stake in a technology or spin-out in return for the support they provide), but requires an academic team managing the entire collaboration and negotiations.

Technology transfer offices want more engagement from ECRs

In a survey we ran at the start of 2020, we asked TTOs that work with us how they identify research from their university to showcase to IN-PART’s industry network. We found overwhelmingly that the primary method is through having projects submitted to them by academics. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the most popular response to the question of ‘what would enable you to submit more technology disclosures to IN-PART’ was ‘more submissions from academics’. 

It makes sense for the onus to be on researchers to proactively engage with their TTO and put forward their projects for assessment. While technology transfer professionals professionals can send out calls for projects and assist researchers in packaging them up, it’s researchers themselves who best understand their work, why they’re doing it, and therefore, the potential real-world applications.

Figure 1: IN-PART annual survey, January 2020, 64 respondents from TTOs in the UK, Europe and USA.

Breaking down this finding that most submissions to TTOs come from academics, we uncovered that most of these come from principal investigators (PIs), professors and other senior academics. While the exact definition of an early career researcher can vary between organisations and institutions, it’s clear from our survey results that junior researchers, including postdocs and PhD students, generally aren’t leading the submission of projects to their TTO. 

ECRs usually work for and with senior researchers and PIs, but there are often cases where ECRs are significantly contributing to or leading the research direction. There are no rules preventing ECRs from initiating an engagement with their university’s TTO and taking responsibility for submitting to them, even if PIs will still be involved. Indeed, early career researchers can take our survey results as encouragement to do so, as they show that TTOs want to receive more engagement from them.

Figure 2: IN-PART annual survey, January 2020, 64 respondents from TTOs in the UK, Europe and USA (multiple choice question).

Where to start?

It’s never too early for ECRs to start thinking about the potential of their research with respect to collaboration and commercialisation. Learning generally about commercialisation itself is a great place to start. TTOs are always open to share their knowledge in accessible formats such as workshops. For example, we spoke recently with Jordan Christie from Durham University’s Research and Innovation Services, who offer training for ECRs to develop skills and awareness for commercialisation.  

“Technology transfer resource levels don’t allow us to proactively get to know every researcher, and we’re already finding that our training offer is drawing out people from departments we may not have traditionally engaged with. We’re always happy to have a conversation with people who want to know more about intellectual property, licensing, spin-outs or other routes to commercialisation, and an initial chat is how those relationships tend to start.”

Early career researchers can take the opportunity to drive a change from what might be considered the traditional path for research outputs from their research group. This could make the crucial difference between their lab’s research being boosted and perhaps commercialised for the benefit of society, or the opportunity being abandoned for other time-consuming academic priorities. In addition, the time investment from ECRs could have valuable career benefits, in terms of commercial skills development and the others associated with industry collaborations.

Featured image is from unsplash.com which are available to use freely under CC0 license.

About the Author
  • Sharon Gill

    Sharon is a Research Officer at IN-PART. She works with leading R&D teams to help them find and connect with innovation being developed in universities around the world. Before joining IN-PART, Sharon conducted postdoctoral research in collaboration with GSK and completed a PhD in partnership with Pfizer at the University of Sheffield, both projects investigating inflammatory lung disease. Twitter: @SharonGilll

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