Tag Archives: James Dalton

Risky business

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.

Research industry collaboration

Research-industry collaboration guide part 1

Innovation and Science Australia recently released its performance review of Australia’s innovation, science and research system, finding that while we’re above average at creating knowledge, we’re poor at applying and transferring it, so our researchers’ wonderful innovations frequently fail to (a) improve lives in the real world, and (b) earn a return on our nation’s significant investment in research.

There’s often a huge crevasse between research organisations, such as universities, and commercial companies, in any industry: a gap in understanding and a potential grave for hopes and dreams. Over a couple of decades of product research, development and commercialisation in international markets, I have crossed that crevasse many times.

For Cochlear, I led ten significant collaborative agreements and participated in five others, involving more than 25 research organisations around the world. Cochlear’s annual R&D budget was around AUS$90 million, or up to 17% of sales.

I have insights to share about building bridges across the research-industry gap for mutual advantage and to benefit society. This is the first in a series of posts about improving research-industry collaboration, in which I will share lessons both from personal experience and recent research into best practice.

Whichever side you’re starting from, below are five steps to build research-industry partnerships for successful technology transfer. In this post, I have focused on the first step. I will explore the other steps in greater detail in subsequent posts.  

1. Develop a culture and practices that promote partnership

Successful research-industry collaboration can often be attributed to executive members of a research organisation who understand business, or have worked in industry. They can empathise with potential industry partners, promote research-industry collaboration by being effective champions and mentors in their own organisation, and provide the continuity in strategy and resourcing needed to maintain a partnership.

Senior businesspeople with a research background can similarly build bridges from the industry side. For example, in my experience, it was much easier to establish research-industry collaboration when surgeons with whom Cochlear had a commercial relationship also had an academic role at a university.

If you’re not at the top of your organisation, and can’t find a senior bridge-builder to mentor you and champion your cause, there’s still much you can do to establish productive research-industry collaboration, even from a cold start.

If you’re a researcher, you can find potential industry partners in the sector/s relevant to your research, and start to understand the problems they need to solve, via: industry conferences; company websites and annual reports; LinkedIn profiles and posts; and other business media, including blogs, etc. If you’re from industry, use similar channels devoted to academic and research organisation communications to seek out the leading experts in relevant areas.

The collaborations I developed for Cochlear had varied origins, e.g: a conversation at a conference; a university actively seeking collaborators to achieve its vision of being at the bleeding-edge of technology; an existing collaborator recommending another researcher who had the expertise we needed; mutual friends introducing me to a researcher because they knew about our shared interests; a local sales team developing a relationship with a university on which I built.

However you find them, when you meet a potential partner, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. How does the company serve its customers and what stands in the way of improving the customer experience? How might the researcher shine a light on, or solve the company’s problems, or even open new markets for the company?  

Be prepared to invest significant face-to-face time getting to know each other on a human level and building trust and understanding. Research-industry collaboration is usually seeded by mutual connections and personal contact, and it only ever grows with shared interests and values.

2. Build a strong foundation for your partnership

Once the willingness to work together has been established, a deeper conversation is required to define the problem/s you are best positioned to solve together, the nature of the relationship, and the benefits each party could expect from it.

3. Manage the risk of your research-industry collaboration

A company considers spending on research an investment in product or service development, but research can be speculative and may not result in the outcome desired by the industry partner, so risk-mitigation strategies are essential.

4. Use your teams to best effect

By encouraging broad participation within both organisations, across a range of disciplines, and including customers or end-users, you can ensure that the project is solving real and important problems, the solution/s will be adopted, and the mutual benefits of the partnership fully realised.

5. Measure your impact

So that the value of the collaboration to each partner can be appreciated, it’s important to measure its impact on the customer experience as well as each party’s bottom lines.

To learn more about Steps 2–5 of research-industry, please watch this space for subsequent posts.

– James Dalton, gemaker

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

research-industry collaboration

With an engineering background, James combines strategic marketing mastery and product development expertise, derived from decades of experience with leading global companies, especially Cochlear. In 2010, he won the Engineers Australia Design Excellence Award and the Red Dot Award for Product Design. He is named as the inventor on six patents. His current role as Commercialisation Manager with gemaker is to support diverse clients – researchers, inventors, startups and expanding businesses – through the many stages of commercialisation, including idea validation and protection, industry engagement, funding acquisition, product development, and marketing.