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Fostering a Global Approach in Industry and Academic Collaboration

Handshake between seven collaborating individuals.
Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay
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Essential to resolving the world’s most complex and urgent problems is collaborative research that spans borders and disciplines. Region-specific expertise is becoming ever more important to ensure that research leverages experiences from “ground zero” that may differ from counterparts in other areas of the globe. Via this greater diversity of perspectives, research outcomes can prove more valuable and impactful.

However, industry professionals can be overwhelmed by the initial complexity associated with finding the perfect out-of-region research partner. Smaller to mid-sized R&D teams simply lack the resources to filter through global research for hours or days on end to find the right study. Even for those that do have the capacity, it is tempting to take the easy route and simply join up with partners from their existing network. However, this often comes with a detriment to the outcome of their research undertakings. These intricacies shouldn’t deter teams from looking afield for new research and insights that can drive the next best innovation. To reach the heights of ambition that are often set at the beginning of research projects, these barriers must come down to encourage connections and holistic outcomes.


Finding the hidden gems

By looking beyond local research, organizations can uncover the hidden gems that have so far remained obscured. Tapping into these insights can lead to significant commercial benefits for under-fire industry organizations that must be at the forefront of new innovations and services. This can be seen in the case of the materials science sector, with organizations able to tap into specific academic insight to address technical R&D challenges associated with creating solutions for extreme environments, including inhospitable Earth conditions.  

The key to finding these insights is by having initial conversations with academic institutions to scope out early-stage projects. As soon as a project is published, or enters the wider industry consciousness, it becomes much harder to secure an effective partnership. Earlier engagement can also help to boost funding and help secure the long-term feasibility of a given project, giving research projects stability from the get-go.

A key component in encouraging research-driven innovation is bringing industries and academia closer together, but in-house R&D teams also need to traverse their own challenges. It takes time and resources to scour through scientific publications, conference reports and lengthy market research reports. This can be particularly challenging where searches are taking place in unfamiliar academic territories or locations, or where an existing network is lacking.

This issue is perhaps the main driver for organizations choosing to build R&D relationships with universities that are nearby. But building a relationship for the sake of geographic convenience provides little value if the institution isn’t specialized in the organization’s subject of interest. This is often the case when tackling modern global issues such as climate change, with the most fruitful partnerships often deriving from those that are both authentic and mutually beneficial. Businesses must spend time building networks outside their specific region to ensure they leverage the best, and most relevant expertise. To do so they must consider which channels they use to push out these calls for research around the world.

Fortunately, avenues to building these networks are in place, with dedicated platforms, conferences and forums that aim to facilitate partnerships between industry and academia that are focused on mission outcomes and uncovering innovation. It is, however, the responsibility of organizations to be proactive in engaging here.


Harmonizing cultural barriers

While the benefits of such partnerships are clear, some industry organizations remain tentative about the prospect of closer collaboration with academic institutions. Culture clashes have long put barriers between industry and academia, especially in the case of partnerships that span across borders. On one side, businesses are working to strict deadlines and a need to demonstrate commercial outcomes, while on the other, academics usually work at a steadier pace by taking an exploratory and process-driven focus. Extreme time zone variations and language barriers can add another layer of complexity to the search for research partners, and innovation journeys need to be balanced with reporting back to senior stakeholders.

To help overcome these issues, clear expectations need to be set in stone from the outset, encouraging a culture of respect and a clear and open line of communication between the two parties. The wholesale changes to working practices over the last few years have proven that remote collaboration is very much doable, as shown by a recent global challenge initiative around immuno-oncology research in which 80% of conversations started were international. 

Tangible results

We’re now seeing more real-life examples of effective, global industry-academia collaboration. Access to thousands of academic contacts has helped drive innovations that positively impact people’s lives. Google collaborated with University College London to develop earlier global detection of influenza outbreaks through the Google Flu Trends service, which leverages flu-related search queries to map flu activity in near real-time. This partnership has driven models for estimating flu and devising where influenza-like illnesses are spreading across the UK.  

The COVID-19 pandemic was a testament to the positive results that can occur from close collaboration between life sciences and academia. Life-saving vaccines were devised and rolled out in a timescale shorter than 12 months. To allow similar breakthroughs to be made, there needs to be a shared platform to bring together entities around the world. Not only can academic institutions be more easily discovered for potential partnerships, but R&D teams can efficiently transform their scouting process while uncovering the needle in the haystack they’ve been looking for. Quicker and more meaningful progress can then ultimately benefit both society and the planet as a whole.

About the author:

Patrick Speedie is co-founder and co-CEO of IN-PART.