During the past decade, research relationships between universities and industry have flourished. A number of structures for such relationships exist. A company may sponsor a specific project involving one or more investigators, or an area of research involving a university department, center, or consortium, with one or more universities participating. Alternatively, several companies may support these structures. A collaborative arrangement, in which both the company and the university are involved in the conduct of the research project, may involve individual investigators—either as a long-term arrangement or a short-term focused project—or it may include a university department, center, or consortium.
Within these structures, universities and industry have a variety of expectations and objectives which motivate industry-sponsored research.
From an industry point of view, research relationships with universities provide a window to new information, knowledge, or different approaches to increase fundamental understanding of technologies which may be of current or future interest to the company. These relationships facilitate the transfer of knowledge from universities that may lead to commercially valuable products or processes. Access to faculty expertise and students provides a pool of candidates for consulting and recruitment.
Universities, for their part, look to these research relationships as a way to enhance the potential development and application of university-based knowledge and discoveries for the public benefit. By working with industry, universities gain access to financial support for research and training; expose academic scientists to industrial approaches to research; and increase understanding of how university research can address industrial concerns. Finally, these research arrangements provide internship and employment opportunities for students.
These industry and university expectations of research relationships fit into the larger, primary objectives of each of these two sectors. Industry focuses on profit and on obligations to stockholders. Universities focus on research, education, and services. Thus, two very different cultures are interacting. Even within these individual cultures, a great deal of diversity exists in terms of objectives, policies, and requirements.
Given the range of possible structures and expectations of university-industry research relationships, it is not surprising that
each relationship may require consideration on a case-by-case basis. Terms to include in a given research agreement will depend on: the structure of the relationship; the stage of investigation relative to commercial application (e.g. basic, applied) and field of research (e.g. biotechnology, electronics, manufacturing); the type of industry (e.g. pharmaceuticals, aerospace); the existing state of knowledge and development (e.g. a newly explored research area, an already highly developed one with patents outstanding); the experience and expectations of the university and industry investigators (e.g. new to industry-sponsored research or “old hands”).
Reaching agreement for the conduct of research between two or more partners takes patience, flexibility, and an understanding of each other’s objectives. Some relationships have been stalled in the process of negotiation, and some have failed, because of a lack of understanding and accommodation of natural differences in culture and expectations between universities and industry. Frequently, prospective research partners need to get to know each other before a successful agreement can be reached. 3
Difficulties in negotiating agreements often are the result of the perception by one party that the other party has unrealistic expectations. The extent to which partners expect to profit financially from the arrangement underlies some of these difficulties. In addition, university and industry expectations regarding diligence in exploiting intellectual property for public benefit may differ. If a commercial product emerges from the sponsored research, all involved stand to gain: the company because it has a tangible result from its investment in a high-risk endeavor; the university because its objectives of making the results of the research available for the public benefit have been realized.
Advanced knowledge, rather than a potential product, is often the most valuable result of industry-sponsored research. The obligation of the sponsor and the university to maximize the public benefit from the research results may, but does not necessarily, require that a product be sold; internal use of the research results by the sponsor may promote public benefit by increasing efficiency and reducing production costs.