Innovation and Science Australia recently released its performance review of Australia’s innovation, science and research system, finding that while we’re above average at creating knowledge, we’re poor at applying and transferring it, so our researchers’ wonderful innovations frequently fail to (a) improve lives in the real world, and (b) earn a return on our nation’s significant investment in research.
There’s often a huge crevasse between research organisations, such as universities, and commercial companies, in any industry: a gap in understanding and a potential grave for hopes and dreams. Over a couple of decades of product research, development and commercialisation in international markets, I have crossed that crevasse many times.
For Cochlear, I led ten significant collaborative agreements and participated in five others, involving more than 25 research organisations around the world. Cochlear’s annual R&D budget was around AUS$90million, or up to 17% of sales.
I have insights to share about building bridges across the research-industry gap for mutual advantage and to benefit society. This is the first in a series of posts about improving research-industry collaboration, in which I will share lessons both from personal experience and recent research into best practice.
Whichever side you’re starting from, below are five steps to build research-industry partnerships for successful technology transfer. In this post, I have focused on the first step. I will explore the other steps in greater detail in subsequent posts.
1. Develop a culture and practices that promote partnership
Successful research-industry collaboration can often be attributed to executive members of a research organisation who understand business, or have worked in industry. They can empathise with potential industry partners, promote collaboration by being effective champions and mentors in their own organisation, and provide the continuity in strategy and resourcing needed to maintain a partnership.
Senior businesspeople with a research background can similarly build bridges from the industry side. For example, in my experience, it was much easier to establish a collaborative research-industry project when surgeons with whom Cochlear had a commercial relationship also had an academic role at a university.
If you’re not at the top of your organisation, and can’t find a senior bridge-builder to mentor you and champion your cause, there’s still much you can do to establish productive relationships across the research-industry divide, even from a cold start.
If you’re a researcher, you can find potential industry partners in the sector/s relevant to your research, and start to understand the problems they need to solve, via: industry conferences; company websites and annual reports; LinkedIn profiles and posts; and other business media, including blogs, etc. If you’re from industry, use similar channels devoted to academic and research organisation communications to seek out the leading experts in relevant areas.
The collaborations I developed for Cochlear had varied origins, e.g: a conversation at a conference; a university actively seeking collaborators to achieve its vision of being at the bleeding-edge of technology; an existing collaborator recommending another researcher who had the expertise we needed; mutual friends introducing me to a researcher because they knew about our shared interests; a local sales team developing a relationship with a university on which I built.
However you find them, when you meet a potential partner, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. How does the company serve its customers and what stands in the way of improving the customer experience? How might the researcher shine a light on, or solve the company’s problems, or even open new markets for the company?
Be prepared to invest significant face-to-face time getting to know each other on a human level and building trust and understanding. Collaboration is usually seeded by mutual connections and personal contact, and it only ever grows with shared interests and values.
2. Build a strong foundation for your partnership
Once the willingness to work together has been established, a deeper conversation is required to define the problem/s you are best positioned to solve together, the nature of the relationship, and the benefits each party could expect from it.
3. Manage risk
A company considers spending on research an investment in product or service development, but research can be speculative and may not result in the outcome desired by the industry partner, so risk-mitigation strategies are essential.
4. Use your teams to best effect
By encouraging broad participation within both organisations, across a range of disciplines, and including customers or end-users, you can ensure that the project is solving real and important problems, the solution/s will be adopted, and the mutual benefits of the partnership fully realised.
5. Measure your impact
So that the value of the collaboration to each partner can be appreciated, it’s important to measure its impact on the customer experience as well as each party’s bottom lines.
To learn more about Steps 2-5, please watch this space for subsequent posts.
With an engineering background, James combines strategic marketing mastery and product development expertise, derived from decades of experience with leading global companies, especially Cochlear. In 2010, he won the Engineers Australia Design Excellence Award and the Red Dot Award for Product Design. He is named as the inventor on six patents. His current role as Commercialisation Manager with gemaker is to support diverse clients – researchers, inventors, startups and expanding businesses – through the many stages of commercialisation, including idea validation and protection, industry engagement, funding acquisition, product development, and marketing.