February 25, 2020

Making the Most of Your University Partnerships

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix

A capstone MBA project creates a go-to-market strategy for a hospital’s new data analytics platform. A design class reimagines how to brand a restaurant that’s also a store. Faculty research the next generation of cloud computing. An investment firm creates a network of incubators on campuses across the country. These are just a few of the many forms of university partnerships with industry that create financial, operational, reputational, and intellectual benefits.

In this post, we’ll outline why universities and industry should partner, how to partner, and how to design the best partnership – yes, a partnership is fundamentally an org design problem that needs clarity of purpose, process, roles, and structure.

First, let me say that many of these insights were sparked by my conversation with Stephanie Smith, the Director of Corporate & Community Partner Engagement at IIT’s Institute of Design – thanks Stephanie!

While universities and industry have different missions, cultures, and structures, they are increasingly finding common ground in mutually beneficial collaborations, and there is more interest and infrastructure supporting university partnerships.

A lot has changed since the National Science Foundation created their Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) program in 1973. Colleges and universities now seek multifaceted industry partnerships that range from the individual to the institutional scale, from informal personal relationships to formal alliances, and from learning experiences to development of new intellectual property and enterprises.

Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Partnership

Why Undertake University Partnerships with Industry?

There is a growing body of literature on why and how to partner; such as Omar and Nene’s systematic review of university-industry collaboration and Rybnicek and Königsgruber’s systematic review of what makes such collaborations successful. From these and other resources as well as our own experience, we’ve identified six types of benefits for academic institutions as well as their industry collaborators:

  1. Human Capital: Partnerships provide a talent pipeline for industry and create career opportunities for students that can include internships, fellowship, co-ops, and full-time roles.
  2. Educational: Partnerships create educational opportunities for university and industry participants for experiential learning, learning new skills and tools, and exposure to new problems and perspectives.
  3. Financial: Partnerships create financial opportunities that include research funding (which is more important as public funding declines), commercialization of ideas, and equity in new enterprises.
  4. Operational: Partnerships have operational benefits such as reduced risk (i.e., a company can use a university as a kind of “skunkworks”), increased agility to move faster than either party could in their current structures, and fostering collaboration across disciplines and locations.
  5. Reputational: Partnerships can benefit universities and industry by bringing visibility, credibility, and prestige to an initiative through this association. They can also lead to new publications and increased exposure.
  6. Intellectual Property: Partnerships enable the development of new ideas and intellectual property, through access to complementary expertise as well as the chance to be a test-bed for applying ideas.
Illinois Institute of Technology & Eataly Partnership: In-Store Interviews and Prototype Projection Arrows

What Are the Different Forms of University Partnerships?

Given the variety of reasons to partner, there are also a variety of different ways to partner. These depend on who’s involved, the scale, the formality, the funding model, the duration, and many other considerations. Here are the eight principal ways universities can partner with industry, ranked roughly in order of increasing financial and organizational commitment:

  1. Class Project: Companies can sponsor and/or work with a class to help students solve a real-world business problem while creating experiential learning opportunities for students. For example, IIT’s Institute of Design used design research to improve brand communication and the retail experience within Eataly.
  2. Capstone Project: Companies can sponsor and/or work with individuals and teams on a more extended capstone project, the kinds of projects that the National Survey of Student Engagement has designated a “high-impact practice.” For example, students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School created a Market Strategy for UPMC.
  3. Research Project: Universities and companies can contribute funds, technology, space, and expertise to pursue joint research projects, which may be focused on a single question/problem or be more exploratory. For example, RedHat has created “open innovation labs” and Collaboratory at Boston University.
  4. Position: Partnerships can also be at the scale of an individual role or position, including an externship, internship, co-op, fellowship, or sponsored/funded PhD. For example, Northeastern University’s Co-op program creates experiential learning opportunities that help their graduates build skills and a project portfolio.
  5. Product: Universities and companies can work together to produce something; this could be a consumer product or — on a meta level — a space or process to create products and services. For example, University of Cincinnati and Proctor & Gamble collaborated on a Simulation Center for IoT applications and electronics.
  6. Programs: Partnerships can also be at the programmatic level where sponsored staff deliver programs like skills workshops, networking events, and mentoring programs to support students and faculty. For example, Blackstone has created “Launchpads” on campuses across the country to help student entrepreneurs.
  7. Alliance: Long-term partnerships can be formalized into alliances that include several of the aforementioned collaborations made possible by a sustained relationship. For example, over more than a decade, JP Morgan Chase and Syracuse University have partnered on initiatives ranging from enhancing the education of technologists to studying and supporting veterans.
  8. Consortium: Beyond an alliance between two entities, universities and industry can also form consortia that benefit from greater scale with increased depth and breadth of collaboration. For example, MIT’s Media Lab Members are part of a consortium where different funding levels provide different levels of access to intellectual property for inspiration and commercialization.
Blackstone LaunchPad, University of Texas Dallas

How to Design Effective Partnerships

We think of university-industry partnerships as organizational design problems to be solved, or more aptly “probletunities.” So, you need to have a clear shared purpose, well-defined roles, and effectively structure the partnership. Here are the design considerations we’ve found to be helpful in our work and in our research:

  • Outcome: Define what you want to get out of the collaborative partnership explicitly. This can range from producing a specific deliverable such as a research report, a new product idea, or a go-to-market strategy, or it may simply be to facilitate a learning experience for participants.
  • Curriculum: Determine the degree to which your efforts will relate to your curriculum; for instance a class workshop or a capstone project would be curricular, a research project might be co-curricular, and a hack-a-thon at an incubator or innovation lab might be extra-curricular.
  • Scale: Decide on the scale of the collaboration. This might including hosting an individual co-op student every year, a sponsored research project completed by a team, a group of fellows, a class capstone project, a research center, or an institution-wide alliance.
  • Time: Identify the length or duration of the collaboration so that you can commit resources accordingly. This can range from a single-day workshop to a semester to relationships that span multiple years.
  • Location/Environment: Determine where the work will happen. Will it happen on-campus, at a client site, in the field, or a combination of all these? The location can have a large impact not only on workflow but also for issues like liability and intellectual property.
  • Content: While it may be tough to know at the onset, it’s important to determine whether the partnership or collaboration is about communicating and learning existing information (such as in a design thinking bootcamp) or whether you’ll be creating new knowledge (such as through a sponsored research project).
  • Intellectual Property: If you are creating new knowledge, it’s important to identify who owns (or how you’ll share ownership of) the intellectual property created in your collaboration. This may include university-owned, student/faculty-owned, sponsor-owned. You must also identify what the associated rights of ownership are; for instance, are the rights to commercialize an idea exclusive to one partner?
  • Management: Cutting across all of the above, be explicit about how you’ll manage the collaboration. Who will play which roles? What are each party’s capabilities and capacities? How will you communicate? Where are your cultures aligned and where are they not? What level of trust has been established?

Getting Started or Getting Better

You may have new partnerships in mind, have already been collaborating with a range of industry partners, or be somewhere in between. Maybe you’ve read articles about how to create the right business model, how to incentivize collaboration, or why to partner in the first place. Maybe you’re part of a membership organization like the University Industry Demonstration Partnership or VentureWell. Regardless, to make the most of these partnerships, treat them as an org design problem: identify the benefits, determine the different ways you’ll collaborate, and think through the details to get it right.

When you do get it right, the benefits can make all of your efforts worthwhile. The NSF IUCRC program we mentioned earlier calculated that “every dollar put into partnership is leveraged 40 times, meaning: if a company puts $50,000 toward a partnership, they’ll leverage $2 million additional dollars in research funding.” Good luck!

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