Laying the foundations

April 21, 2017

In part 2 of his guide to collaboration, commercialisation manager James Dalton explores how to building a strong foundation for industry-research partnerships.

industry-research collaboration

In response to Innovation and Science Australia’s recent performance review of Australia’s innovation, science and research system, I am producing a series of posts about improving industry-research collaboration, to share lessons from my experience leading collaborations for Cochlear, as well as recent research into best practice.

This blog series describes five steps to build industry-research partnerships for successful technology transfer. If you missed it, you can learn about Step 1 – develop a culture and practices that promote partnership – in my previous post. When you’re ready, here’s Step 2…

2. Build a strong foundation for your partnership

This stage of the potential collaboration follows the introduction and is about getting to know each other and building trust and understanding. These intangible assets take time to develop and are essential for a positive, productive relationship. Therefore, spending time in regular contact with potential partners, especially face-to-face, is critical and will pay dividends.

While informal meetings help potential collaborators get to know each other at a human level, face-to-face time should not be entirely unstructured. Every interaction should work towards answering two critical questions about motivations and expectations:

  • What does the company hope to achieve through the industry-research collaboration?
  • What does the research organisation seek to accomplish? 

Answering these questions will minimise the risk of disappointment and conflict later.  Also, when the tech transfer office and other administrators step in to draft the contract, having a clear, shared understanding of the purpose of the collaboration will simplify their negotiations. It’s useful to have these parties meet face-to-face as early as possible, so that they have time to build empathy too.

At Cochlear, when my colleagues and I met face-to-face with potential research collaborators, we planned an agenda in advance, identifying the issues we needed to discuss. We also spent time over lunch or dinner getting to know each other personally.

When members of the research team visited our office to learn more about Cochlear’s operations, we invited them to explain their research interests, achievements and experiences to all staff in a lunchtime seminar. These interactions helped both parties and their wider organisations develop trust and understanding.

Industry-research collaboration brings a sudden injection of new colleagues. Before commitment, each party should understand the strengths and weaknesses of their potential co-workers, and what they would contribute to the collaboration, i.e:

  • Who is in each team and what is their role?
  • What is each team member’s experience and expertise? 
  • How does each team measure up against their peers and competitors?
  • Has either team ever collaborated with others on the opposite side of the industry-research divide before? If so, what was the outcome?

As companies need to keep a watchful eye on their competitors, while sniffing out new market opportunities, they will also ask the research team the following questions:

  • Where is the science heading and on what timeframe?
  • What are the critical questions that remain unanswered in the field and what will it take to answer them?
  • What do the researchers know about any relevant industry collaborations involving their peers?

One of the best ways to understand technological trends and the R&D strategy of competitors is by analysing their patenting and publishing activities.  At Cochlear, we readily shared knowledge of competitors’ activities with our research collaborators, so they could be our ‘eyes and ears’ in the research sector.

Potential collaborators must discuss the following:

  • What problem are we seeking to solve? 
  • Who are the end users / customers and how can we improve value for them?
  • What are our time and budget constraints and what is achievable within them?

This phase of the industry-research collaboration is the time to identify any flaw in the research direction. In one case in my experience, the research had merit in its aims, but the proposed solution was impractical. Cochlear’s engineering expertise redirected the research, leading to a significant leap in the field and demonstrating the benefit of the collaboration.

By taking time: to build a personal relationship based on trust; to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses; to share information about threats and opportunities; to nail down the problem and how it may be solved practically; and above all, to clarify the expectations of each party; collaborators will lay down a solid foundation on which to build successful commercialisation projects.

The next steps in best practice industry-research collaboration for technology transfer are:

  1. Manage risk
  2. Use your teams to best effect and
  3. Measure your impact

To learn more about these, please watch this space for subsequent posts.

– James Dalton, gemaker

research-industry collaboration

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