Successful partnerships between universities and businesses have been identified as a means to drive economic growth and recovery.

Whilst pre-existing relationships often lead to natural business-university collaboration, we have found that sometimes assistance from a third-party is necessary.

Universities often seek help to understand the research strategy and current objectives of businesses. Their challenge is to decide which private partners to approach and how to address a tangible need during negotiations.

Businesses often seek help to define which universities are active in their field of interest, which researchers would be the best to collaborate with, and which groups are the best resourced. An objective and unbiased approach is often valued.

“Research Directors will only collaborate externally when it is necessary and advantageous to do so, and will view this as a risk to both their company and themselves”

Cerebrus Associates is a Small to Medium sized Enterprise (SME) which assists universities, research institutes, businesses and third-sector organisations to collaborate successfully for mutual benefit. We help to build consortia to bid for EU funding schemes such as Horizon 2020 (formerly Framework 7), and broker new business-university partnerships for individual research and consultancy projects.

We have found that despite the obvious advantages associated with university-business collaboration, brokering new partnerships can be an involved process. This can be even more challenging when an overarching set of objectives has been stipulated by the funding body.

Businesses do not often publicise their research strategy or publish the results of their own research. Research Directors will only collaborate externally when it is necessary and advantageous to do so, and will view this as a risk to both their company and themselves – the quality of their decisions and reputation within the business is at stake. They will, naturally, be acutely concerned with issues such as strategy alignment, intellectual property agreements, return on investment, corporate reputation, pace and trust.

Whilst many of these concerns will be shared by universities too, the emphasis placed on each may differ subtly. A classic example concerns the management of intellectual property. The largest of the three elements of Research Excellence Framework concerns research outputs. As such, a business seeking to restrict the publication of research results would be an abhorrent suggestion for many academics! However, our experience has found that such clichés are often not the biggest barriers to success.

“In most cases a solution exists to ensure each partner is able to participate in and benefit from the research in an optimal manner.”

Building a consortium to bid for a long-term research project is perhaps one of the biggest challenges due to the range of objectives each partner brings to the table. Private partners will often have the opportunity to vastly increase their return on investment. In many matched-funding schemes, a business can often obtain twice as much research per unit investment as when they fund the work directly. However, they may be required to participate in elements of research that does not fully align with their strategy, and commit financial resources for longer periods of time than is normal for their business. This is a decision that they have to evaluate carefully, and often withdraw if the match with strategy becomes unfavourable.

When collaborating with business, the university partners will gain access to increased funding, and, in some cases, access to facilities and oversight of proprietary information. However, the university may be required to adopt a flexible approach to accommodate the specific research requirements that the private partner will undoubtedly request. They may become frustrated if they perceive the private partner as being obstructive or insistent.

Each partnership and consortium is different. However, in most cases a solution exists to ensure each partner is able to participate in and benefit from the research in an optimal manner. The key Lominger competencies that we believe are required during negotiations are customer focus, listening, understanding others, business acumen, negotiating and conflict management. In our experience, it is also useful to possess a good dose of patience, humour, and mutual understanding!

Dr Jon Day is the founder and Director of Cerebrus Associates

Other posts that may interest you:

Marion Anderson: Universities and SMEs – finding common ground
James Ransom: Universities and business: each are stronger when they work together
Prof. Colin Riordan: What’s business got to do with universities?

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