niversity, business, and economic-development teams have a long history of collaboration that ranges from soft investment, such as co-development of curriculum, to hard investment, including construction of commercial research parks. Often these initiatives target start-up companies (spun from technologies developed on campus) and are consequently of great interest on campus but of only marginal interest to established companies in the region.
However, in today's tough economic climate an emerging synergy is developing between companies desperate to explore new channels to profitability and universities seeking to replace lost state aid and reduced public research dollars. Consequently, many universities are now actively re-examining their role in regional economic development and exploring new ways to bring more private-sector research dollars to their institutions. Some companies have found that this newly infused entrepreneurial spirit on-campus has created opportunities to forge innovative university-corporate partnerships that are designed to increase overall business activity and bring profit to both the business and university.
Establish a Common Platform
Examples of collaboration among university, business and regional economic development teams are numerous and diverse, and have generally fit into a few basic categories. For example, universities typically are major investors in real estate and public amenities in their immediate neighborhoods, and many in academia consider this involvement the proper extent of university participation in regional economic development efforts. Many research institutions engage in a variety of programs intended to help faculty commercialize inventions and create new spin-off companies. Other universities, however, have ambiguous feelings about engaging directly in the business activities of corporations in their communities and fear that strong ties with their corporate neighbors will corrupt the academic environment of the university.
From the corporate perspective, established companies invariably value universities in their communities as a source of talent, especially from difficult-to-recruit disciplines, but often view the local university as remote and somewhat disengaged from "real world" business activity. Bridging the corporate-university divide are the economic development officials whose focus is attracting new businesses to the region. These officials are quite savvy at making sure that site selection consultants and corporate prospects are aware of key university graduation rates, especially in key disciplines, in the hope that a corporate prospect will attempt to "intercept" these highly prized graduates by locating a new business operation nearby.
Missing from many of these approaches, however, has been a sustained dialogue between established companies and the local universities. The following three examples have this in common: Reinvigorated corporate-university dialogue results in the creation of new common platforms from which critical professional relationships can be established, investments in technology infrastructure shared or corporate research and development costs outsourced to the university.
Expanding the Role of the
Technology Transfer Office
Many, if not most, research universities have programs that are intended to help faculty patent and commercialize technologies developed on campus, and these efforts are often coordinated by an Office of Technology Transfer. The University of California at San Diego's (UCSD) Office of Technology Transfer has expanded this traditional role by actively engaging with the broader business community. The university now plays, among other things, a leading match-making role that brings together venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, existing businesses and faculty. This platform has created a network that has been critical in helping both business and the university attract outside research dollars, especially in life sciences.
Moreover, the region's success at attracting research dollars has made it easier to attract "star" talent to both the university and corporate communities, making it that much easier for the region to attract still more research dollars. Today, most observers tend to take the vibrancy of San Diego's technology cluster for granted. But it is worth recalling that 20 years ago San Diego's economy was based almost exclusively on tourism and defense.
Companies must get comfortable with the concept of leasing the intellectual property developed on campus &ndash even when the corporation funded the research – in just the same way that businesses have gotten used to leasing everything else, from real estate to employees.
Bill Decker, associate director of UCSD's Technology Transfer Office, has some very useful advice for those interested in replicating San Diego's success in their communities. He says that the university-corporate interaction must be led from both sides by people who recognize that establishing an effective university-corporate partnership is a "diplomatic mission" between two very different cultures that must learn to cooperate with each other without losing their unique and distinct identities. The dialogue must be viewed as a two-way street. UCSD has created a platform that promotes this dialogue, and by so doing has helped the San Diego region create and maintain a virtuous cycle of an expanding technology and life sciences cluster.
University as Shared Services Center
All research universities thrive on the ability of faculty to attract research dollars. Through its research foundation, the University of Akron is a great example of a university taking an active role in initiating partnerships with leading companies throughout the northeast Ohio region. The first step in this process was to initiate corporate-university dialogue, the explicit purpose of which was to actively explore ways in which the university can more directly provide research services to the private sector. One unique service outcome that resulted was the outsourcing of corporate technical library services to the university.
Akron is the hub of tire research and development, and it turns out that several companies in the region maintained similar libraries of (expensive) technical publications. By outsourcing library services to the university as a shared-services provider, these companies save money – and the university has a new profit center. Another outcome of the university's aggressive outreach to companies is that the corporate community has a heightened awareness of the university's research capabilities, a condition that John Myers, executive-in-residence at the University of Akron Research Foundation, believes is necessary for outsourced research opportunities to be identified.
Having grown up in the same community, for example, there is significant overlap between the polymer science expertise at the university and the needs of the tire research and development operations located in Akron. One hurdle that companies need to overcome is that all technology developed at the University of Akron is owned by the university, a condition that is common to most public universities. Consequently, companies must get comfortable with the concept of leasing the intellectual property developed on campus – even when the corporation funded the research – in just the same way that businesses have gotten used to leasing everything else, from real estate to employees. The business funds the research, the university grants exclusive development and marketing rights back to the sponsoring company and each side gains. The university gains in increased research dollars, and the companies gain by leveraging local talent rather than recruiting top talent on their own.
The State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany has partnered with many leading chip manufacturers, including IBM, AMD and SEMATECH (a consortium of semiconductor and emerging technology partners) to create a College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. As with most successful corporate-university partnerships, the College brings a targeted focus to an industry that already had a strong presence in the region, i.e. semiconductors.
Process modeling technology for chip manufacturing is often conducted by a consortium of companies, because the cost of the research can be prohibitively high for any one company to undertake individually. Therefore, the innovation behind this College is in attracting such a high profile consortium to a university campus. The college's corporate partners gain access to a highly skilled student population, certain economies resulting from shared space and some amount of state subsidy while continuing to operate in an environment in which each partner in the consortium is free to pursue proprietary research programs.
The university's students and faculty gain access to hundreds of millions of dollars of state-of-the-art technology equipment that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to the university community. From a regional economic development perspective, the Albany region has positioned itself to attract new semiconductor operations from companies utilizing the technologies developed at the college since the college will have the best available supply of skilled workers trained in those particular technologies – which are in fact now being developed right on campus.
These are just a few examples of communities in which established businesses have actively engaged their local research university in ways intended to help both the university and businesses achieve greater success. No one model will fit every community, but the first step in each example was the initiation of sustained dialogue between the university and corporate communities. Almost always, corporations and universities that grow up in the same community have huge areas of overlapping interest and expertise. By working together, the full benefit of this knowledge can be leveraged so that the benefit to both the business and university communities exceeds the sum total of each sector working alone.
Daniel Levine is founder of MetroCompare L.L.C., a Fanwood, N.J.-based site selection and economic development consulting company. His e-mail address is Levine@metrocompare.com
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