Companies often fund university researchers to advance new ideas in their field, and university professors often seek funding from companies who create products that are related to their research. A while ago I posted some advice on how to facilitate research collaborations between academia and industry. I promised to provide more information, so here it is.
Listed below are issues that the university researcher and industry sponsor need to address early in the discussion process. Often, both sides are unaware that these can be potentially contentious issues until well into the work and the issue is staring at them in the face, at which point the relationship can start to strain. Answer the following questions up front, and the collaboration or sponsorship will go much smoother.
1. Why is the company interested in sponsoring this research?
Different companies have different motivations for funding university research. Some simply want an association with a nearby university or a leader in their field for PR purposes. This looks good to their customers, and having the researcher mention the company as a sponsor at talks and in publications can enhance the company’s image. If this is the case, then there will be little pressure from the company to provide details on progress and few inquiries from the company’s researchers about the work.
If, however, the company is funding the research because they hope that the outcome will be useful for the company’s own research (a more likely case), then company researchers may want to meet with the university researchers at various points to discuss protocols, time-lines, preliminary results, etc. The company is paying for the research, so of course they are eager to know the details about the work and the results. This can be annoying to the university researcher in part because industry and academia operate on different time scales. What appears to the company to be infrequent requests for updates will appear to the university researcher to be constant hounding.
2. What are the expectations and deliverables?
This relates to the previous question, but is more specific. What does the sponsoring company expect in the way of updates? Do they expect to be able to send their scientists to the university lab every month to talk about the project, or are quarterly updates by e-mail sufficient? Do they expect a written report at the end of the project with all of the data, or do they want all of the software code and detailed protocols so that they can replicate the results at the company labs? Discussing this up front will avoid frustrations later on.
3. What are both sides’ rights to publish and present?
Companies survive because they obtain advantages over their competition. Many of their advantages are proprietary and companies protect those advantages by either patenting them or keeping them secret. Unless the company is only looking for good PR from the project (see point #1), the business executives in a company would rather keep secret any useful results from the sponsored project for as long as possible.
This, of course, conflicts with the university researcher’s goal of publishing and presenting the research that they conduct. This ability is fundamental to the researcher’s job and should be undeniable by the company. The happy medium is to allow the company to file for patent protection on any inventions that arise from the project before the invention is made public in a presentation or submitted manuscript. This is typically achieved by providing the sponsoring company with copies of what will be presented or submitted for publication at least one month in advance to allow the company to review what will be publicly disclosed and to file a patent application if necessary.
On the other side, the company may want to publish and present the results of the research at meetings that are important to their business. They may or may not want the university researcher to participate in these presentations. Again, expectations should be discussed so that both sides are aware of each other’s goals.
4. Is the sponsor agreeable to the university’s Intellectual Property policy?
There is the possibility that a patentable invention will result from the sponsored research. These days, every American university has formalized their own policy on ownership rights of any inventions, with details on what the rights of the sponsoring company are to the invention. Areas include rights to use, produce and commercialize, exclusive and non-exclusive. Also to be considered are rights when the only inventors are university employees or when there is shared inventorship between university employees and company employees. Be aware of the policy and make sure everyone is comfortable with it before beginning work.
Often, companies only sponsor research that they believe will not produce any inventions in order to avoid any costly licensing fees. Corporate executives will also often bristle at University IP policies. I’ve known some companies that have pulled the plug on sponsored research after significant work had been done to set up the project because corporate lawyers did not like the IP policy, and other companies that have selected which university to work with largely based on which university had the loosest IP policy.
In my opinion, these are over-reactions. Companies incorrectly think that universities will be as cut-throat in negotiations as their competitors, and that the university will become a threat to the sponsoring company if all the IP isn’t tied up with the sponsoring company from the start. Universities are in the business of teaching and training students and conducting reputable research, not generating massive revenue from licensing technology. Yes, they do want a return from their employees inventions, but no, they are not going to pursue monetization of the invention in the same way that IBM or Intellectual Ventures would.
5. Will the research be conducted by the professor, a post-doc, or graduate student?
Research at university labs is usually not conducted by the professor who directs the lab but by students working with the professor. The students are there to learn and be trained.
Whereas industry researchers have significant experience and are efficient in making decisions and finding the right approach, student researchers will spend a certain amount of time exploring new ideas and learning new concepts. They will take considerably longer than a dedicated industry researcher because they are learning and being trained. If the professor will actively participate in the project, however, then progress will likely be faster.
Post-docs will also work faster because they have more experience. Presumably, the post-doc is not as focused on learning as a graduate student is and they are focused more on progress and producing publications. So, the sponsoring company should know who will be doing the primary research so that they will understand the speed with which it will progress and set their expectations accordingly.
6. Is the university researcher a collaborator or contractor?
Is the expectation by the sponsoring company that they are simply writing a check and that all work will be done by the university researcher, or does the sponsoring company want to be an active participate? If they want to participate, then at what level: helping to develop protocols, replicating research in their labs, providing equipment, data interpretation?
The approach that I try to take at my research center is to be a collaborator with the university researcher. For me, this ensures that the research has the greatest likelihood of being useful for my company’s needs, and eases the transfer of technology from the university lab to my lab. In the absence of participation, the likelihood exists that any results from the university lab will just sit on a shelf, waiting for someone to read the report.
7. Are there opportunities to enhance the funding?
Sometimes there are programs available that add funding dollars to sponsored projects. The University of California has a mechanism called the UC Discovery Grant that doubles sponsorship funding through a grant submission process: if approved, the state of California matches the funds of the sponsoring company. Money is always tight, and it’s worth investigating whether the university or state has funding mechanisms that can be used to enhance the sponsor’s funds.