Collaboration between Academics and Companies

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By Joy Sun and Flaura Koplin Winston, MD PhD

For academics with their sights on broad impact on health and wellness through new products and services, collaboration with corporations is often necessary. The academic researcher/inventor can conduct fundamental, formative, evaluative research and design prototypes. The commercialization partner can provide complementary activities, including raising capital, “ruggedizing” prototypes and delivering a product or service at scale. These commercialization activities are challenging for many non-profit entities (where most academics work) because these institutions (a) may not have sufficient resources and expertise in commercialization and (b) might be subject to taxation for “unrelated business income” (a trade or business that is regularly carried on and is not substantially related to further the exempt purpose of the organization IRS UBIC). Therefore, a partnership with a commercial entity, when done correctly, can be mutually beneficial and benefit society by bringing excellent science to market at scale.  This article’s intention is to give helpful tips to academics seeking partnerships or collaborations with corporations.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that partnerships must be mutually beneficial.  Ideally, all parties in the partnership would share a long-term goal and respect the complementary expertise that each brings to the partnership. Just as the academic should respect the corporate partner’s expertise in commercialization, the corporate partner should respect the unbiased, credible research methods and interpretation by the academic partner. Two of the safest ways to ensure that these roles are protected are through (a) corporate-sponsored research that is managed through the academic institution and (b) research funded by a corporate-sponsored consortium (e.g., National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers). Five key considerations underscore mutually beneficial academic/industry partnership: first, create a neutral space through which each party’s interests are heard and served; second, identify and connect with corporate “gatekeepers”; third, formalize the collaboration via a logic model; fourth, identify potential challenges to the relationship and how they will be handled; and fifth, memorialize agreements within a mutually beneficial framework for engagement and track decisions and intellectual property.  These points are introduced in the following:

  1. Neutral space: While both the partners may share the same long-term goal, business goals may require pivots or methods that are not in alignment with the academic partner’s goals and academic goals may require publication, avoidance of conflicts of interest, and human subject protection may not be priorities for the corporate partner. Thus, two strategies for protecting the interests of members of industry/university partnerships are to employ a neutral third party or to fund the work through a consortium model with bylaws and accountability. The key concept behind both of these scenarios is that a priority is given to ensuring that the academic remain a credible source who is free from bias.

  2. Gatekeepers are the first step in forming partnerships.  Gatekeepers often attend academic conferences and conventions relevant to their companies’ interests.  For example, companies interested in sleep disorders will send their gatekeepers to the annual SLEEP conference.  They will often approach and establish contact with presenters who interest them.  Gatekeepers specialize through their extensive networking--they may not necessarily have access to significant financial resources within a company, but can direct you to those who do if your idea impresses them enough.

  3. A logic model is a series of “if-then” steps that link the partnership activities to shared intermediate outcomes and the ultimate end goal. It is a formalized way to articulate the shared vision.  All parties should identify and agree on the ultimate, long-term goal and then move backwards to define intermediate goals, activities that will achieve these goals and process and impact metrics and targets.  This logic model is best done in a meeting with all parties present so that all parties are aware and in agreement.

  4. Identifying potential challenges to the relationship and to accomplishing the goals is often done with relation to the logic model.  It is important to envision and discuss potential problems and how they will be resolved BEFORE the problems occur. What are the metrics of success in accomplishing a goal and what will happen if the success metrics are not reached? What will be the implication for each of the parties and for the partnership? Often, the challenges arise through misunderstandings that result from differences in language and culture between academia and corporations. From the start, keep an open line of communication whereby any concerns can be discussed and rectified.

  5. Finally, ensure that a framework for engagement is established.  Keep in mind concepts like freedom to publish and intellectual property rights; these aspects should be agreed upon before the partnership commences and reviewed periodically.  Partnerships should ultimately be treated like a marriage: all attempts should be made for equal rights, and it’s ok to test the relationship first before fully committing.  Doing a small trial or short term project first is a good way of identifying whether or not the partnership is one that will continue to succeed or is destined to fail.

Like any other relationship, communication is the biggest factor for a successful partnership.  Establish trust by openly communicating your goals and interests, and your collaborators will reciprocate.  


Joy Sun is a student in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania | joysun@sas.upenn.edu

This post was adapted from a presentation by Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

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