Risky business

June 20, 2017

In part 3 of his guide to collaboration, commercialisation manager James Dalton explores how to manage risk in industry-research partnerships.

To build research-industry partnerships for successful technology transfer, Step 1 is to develop a culture and practices that promote partnership and Step 2 is to build a strong foundation for your partnership. At this point, you (a research organisation and a commercial company) have established a relationship based on trust and understanding, and are on the verge of serious commitment.

Researchers should be aware that collaboration with Company A may restrict you from jumping into bed with Company B, particularly if A and B are competitors. In business as in love, consider whether monogamy suits you before beginning a long-term partnership.

It’s hard to imagine D-I-V-O-R-C-E when you’ve just fallen in love, but any country-and-western singer and I would recommend that, before you make any vows, you should invest in couples counselling and a pre-nuptial agreement. It’s time to…

Manage risk (Step 3)

A company considers spending on research to be an investment in product or service development. Any investment carries risk, but investing in experimentation is high risk: the research may not result in the outcome desired by the industry partner, or it may take longer and cost more than anticipated to achieve that outcome.

An example from my experience at Cochlear was a surgical tool that showed promise in laboratory testing, but trials in a simulated operating theatre revealed that it was impractical for routine surgical use. Unfortunately, this issue could not be resolved, so the project did not proceed further.

The company’s decision-makers will be held accountable for the performance of their investment and so should seek to minimise or mitigate the associated risk. The research partner should share that aim, if they want a long-term relationship with the company, or a good reputation in the industry.

Risk management is hard for early-stage, ground-breaking research where the outcome is unknown and likelihood of failure is high. It’s easier for late-stage research such as product prototyping, especially where the new product’s capabilities can be demonstrated using standard components in simulated conditions.  For instance, a low-risk project to develop an augmented-reality surgical training system involved the novel integration of existing software and hardware.

Some of the most useful risk management strategies are:

  • seeding the project team with people who have the experience and skills to straddle the industry/research divide
  • nominating a divide-straddling project manager with authority to set and revise the scope, schedule and budget
  • breaking the work into small chunks with shorter timeframes
  • clearly defining roles, responsibilities and deliverables
  • linking the achievement of milestones to payments, and
  • monitoring progress with regular project reviews and making timely decisions when issues emerge.

Expect and plan for administrative overheads, including legal and reporting costs. Best practice is to establish an umbrella agreement that covers the ‘big picture’ of the partnership, with a series of smaller agreements covering specific projects. The latter should use a project management framework to define each project’s scope, resources, timeframe, deliverables and milestones, and the team members’ roles and responsibilities.  If these administrative aspects of collaboration are treated with contempt, stakeholder issues can escalate rapidly, leading to relationship breakdown.

In some industries, such as medical technology and pharmaceuticals, legal compliance is an important consideration in collaboration, requiring additional documentation, such as a formal contract including a detailed scope-of-work. In my experience, the researchers – usually university academics – with whom Cochlear collaborated were often also medical professionals involved in purchase decisions for their practices.  A contract and scope-of-work demonstrates that any payments are for legitimate research and not an inducement to do business with the company.

Often it’s legal and commercial issues that are the main hurdles in establishing research-industry collaboration. Companies want to own any intellectual property (IP) generated through the collaboration to give them freedom to operate – for example, to use the research results to support the product claims – and to gain advantage over competitors. A company will not participate in a partnership if the ownership of the relevant IP is complicated, or likely to be contested. Legal assignments or similar agreements can simplify IP ownership.

Once you’ve done all you can to manage risk, feel free to release the doves, scatter the rose petals and process down the aisle. But if you hope to see cobwebs grow on your unused pre-nup, remember that the happiest marriages are those supported by the extended family on both sides. That’s why my next post will be about using your teams to best effect (Step 4). My final post in this series will be about measuring your impact (Step 5), because every marriage has a legacy. Watch this space.

research-industry collaboration

– James Dalton, gemaker

Click here for information about gemaker’s industy engagement training program for researchers.

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