Generally, university - company collaborations can be challenging because of the vastly different clock-speeds in getting things done. In addition, conflicts between the university’s desire to publish and companies desire to gain a proprietary position in a commercial effort can cause prioritization mis-matches. Working with a traditional university Tech Transfer Office (TTO) can be a nightmare, as the larger universities have a “my way or the highway” mentality. I guess the notion of treating the partner company as a “customer” has just not caught on. Too bad, because a positive long-term relationship that can be built to benefit both parties enormously. A key, I believe, is for the university to gain some empathy.
Many universities interact with external companies through the Development Office and the TTO. Neither are typically staffed by seasoned business people who can anticipate real business needs and communicate how the university can help make life less difficult for partner companies. Rather, they are staffed by junior people with little industry experience or senior people with very narrow experience. Any people with expertise on current Industry trends? Nope, we don’t have time for that. Someone who has actually run a company? No way. How about a successful entrepreneur? No. Those folks are the people these universities hope to get meetings with.
This state of affairs will have to change, and soon. Global innovation efforts are accelerating and companies will seek out the best collaboration partners available. Universities have a lot to offer, but even more to gain. Universities are scrambling to find new funding sources as public funding and philanthropic funding decline rapidly. Governmental funding is in the process of a long-term decline. Philanthropic funding sources are bypassing universities as they partner with local community efforts that have a higher profile public impact or NGO’s that have a more intoxicating vision and purpose. Who does this leave? Companies - large ands small. These entities want to see a real return on their investment, however, and universities have trouble talking in their language and relating to their competitive needs. I recently wrote an article on building ‘Impact Collaborations’ with universities for the Product and Development Management Association’s (PDMA) Visions Magazine (Q1 2013 Issue) and I have received some international feedback from readers with scary tales about their frustration with building successful collaborations with U.S. research universities.
Universities are doing a lot of self-examining these days. The rise of MOOCs, student anger with ever-increasing educational costs, and the increasing criticism of the real world inapplicability of what some universities call “research” is likely to cause significant disruption in U.S. higher education in the next several years. Add to this disruption the need to fund bigger and bigger budgets within those large universities. Building collaborations with companies is an obvious opportunity, but universities need to educate themselves about the realities of becoming a collaboration partner of choice. It is possible, but the status quo will not be enough.