Using Academic Researchers

You have to develop a next-generation product, but your technical department isn't up to it.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

You discover that the local university has a department devoted to this kind of technology. Time for academic collaboration?

Could someone else do it? If it's a straight technical problem, or if it's time-critical, use a technical consultancy that's more in tune with the commercial approach, says Michael Zeitlyn, a director of Cambridge-based specialist Oakland Innovation and Information Services. 'But if it's about developing a better understanding that may lead to new opportunities, a university collaboration may be a solution.'

Personality over proximity. It's important to locate the right expertise. Sites like and regional development agencies can help. If you have a university in mind but no contact, speak to the industrial liaison office, advises the best-practice guide published by the CBI and the Association for University Research & Industry Links ( Personality is also key, says Zeitlyn. 'They've got to be interested and excited by the project.'

Write the brief. The research must meet your objectives. But a university's intellectual input can also be important. Listen to what they have to say before you start drawing up the project parameters.

Who gets the spoils? If the research is commercially competitive, you will want the intellectual property rights, but universities increasingly expect to keep the fruits of their faculty's labours. You could allow them to exploit the IP in an area in which you are not interested, says Zeitlyn; or offer royalties on any product that develops from the research.

He who calls the tune ... The more the research coincides with the faculty's agenda, the more likely the university is to bear some costs. If you're asking for contract research, on a subject that has commercial benefit to you but little intellectual interest to them, expect to pay a premium.

Grants equal less control. A range of support is available for collaboration between industry and academia in the form of grants and other help from the DTI, government agencies and the EU. But, warns Zeitlyn: 'Third-party funding can impact on timelines, control, and direction. If it's important, you want to stay in charge.'

Keep a hand on the tiller. Introduce regular meetings and fairly short milestones to ensure everything is going to plan.

Confidentially ... The desire of academics to share knowledge and of businesses to retain commercial confidentiality can cause conflict. How about letting them publish - but only two years down the line?

Do say: 'Your unparalleled knowledge base and our understanding of the commercial issues could lead to a real step forward on this subject.'

Don't say: 'Those bearded long-hairs at the uni can figure it out. It'll be cheaper than doing it ourselves.'

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