Roundtable Review

Blurring boundaries to strengthen identities: challenges and opportunities in the Triple Helix model
Posted 27 January '14

Triple Helix

The Triple Helix article series – 2

Industry-university collaborations often stir strong emotions among company managers and academics alike. Many of these worries come from preconceptions, while others are justified concerns that need to be addressed by all sides involved.

A common fear amongst academic researchers is that strong partnerships with industry will eventually result in companies dictating universities’ research agenda. As industry relies on commercially exploitable outcomes over basic research, the argument follows that companies entering into collaborations with universities would want them to focus on translational, instead of developmental or basic research. However, a close look at successful industry-academia collaborations reveals flaws in this reasoning, mainly resulting from confusion between contract research and strategic partnership. For many years, contract research was the standard industry-academia collaboration: companies sought the help of universities to solve specific problems, often with a direct impact on a company’s product. The company put in the money, while the university put in their research expertise and took on most of the risk. In the Triple Helix model, in contrast, industry and universities are in a partnership where they both share the risks and benefits of ground-breaking research. In this context, each partner does what they do best: universities provide early discovery and proof-of-concept data, while industry identifies and develops commercialization opportunities. In such a model, not only is the independence of universities preserved, but universities’ identity as places of true innovation is strengthened, as companies rely more and more on universities to tell them what the next big thing will be.

As a matter of fact, companies often stay away from collaborations involving research that is too close to the marketplace. The main reason for this strategy is the sticky issue of IP rights. Industry-university collaborations must rely on a strong overall IP framework, but it is important to leave some room for negotiation on a case-by-case basis. While companies have a stronger interest in ideas that make money, the true value of industry collaboration for universities is not necessarily in royalties; fostering on-campus innovation and exposing students to a real-world environment might be a bigger win in the long term. Moreover, at a time where the overall impact of basic research is questioned, collaboration with industry allows universities to directly demonstrate their economic and social value for society as a whole: a political credit well worth negotiating IP rights for.

Indeed, the Triple Helix model extends academia’s role in society: from centres for education, research and public service, universities become innovation catalysers that can significantly contribute to the general economy. For this revolution to occur, this new vision needs to be embedded into the traditional system of incentives in academia. Traditionally, a strong publication and teaching record, together with the ability to win grants, have been the main determinants to get a tenured position at a university, with little or no credit gained by engaging in external collaborations or even winning patents. As a consequence, young faculty will not easily venture into industry partnerships, especially as they are very time consuming.  In addition to poor returns, diffidence and prejudice might also stop brilliant university investigators from engaging with industry. The easiest way to overcome this problem is to blur the lines between careers in the public and private research sector. Currently, the career trajectories of academics and researchers in industry are quite separate, especially in the life sciences. As we have pointed out, successful industry-university collaborations rely heavily on individuals with experience in both worlds, so universities who want to succeed in industrial collaborations will have to put some effort in recruiting scientists from industry, and start rewarding researchers’ achievements beyond mere publications [1].

Collaborations with academia can be tricky to handle for industry, too. The main risk here is failure to deliver impactful outcomes. In fact, a report by MIT Sloan Management highlights that while about half of collaboration projects deliver new ideas or solutions to problems, only one in five has a major impact on the company participating in the collaboration [2]. As we explored in the first article of this series, the main cause of failing collaboration is poor management. In particular, constant feedback and follow up is essential to deliver tangible outcomes. On one hand, industry complains that, having set specific objectives for the collaboration, the academic partner’s attention shifts to some other interesting problem, leaving the company involved with little leverage to bring the project back on track. On the other hand, academics often complain about lack of follow up of successful collaborations by industrial partners. To avoid this situation, a complete management framework, including face-to-face meetings and formal reports, but flexible enough to allow changes on both sides, is a must in industry-universities collaborations.

To succeed, companies must establish long term collaborations with a few centres of excellence in key strategic areas for their business. This has a number of consequences for government, the often forgotten third strand of the Triple Helix. To ensure that industry-university collaborations succeed, governments must strive to support a few truly outstanding universities, which will be preferential partners for such partnerships. This is politically difficult to achieve, since giving more to centres of excellence will inevitably result in weaker universities receiving less funding. As often times funding for research and teaching are intertwined, this strategy might affect the overall quality of technical education, with detrimental implications for society overall. There is no easy solution to this problem, especially in tough economic times. However, truly visionary governments must recognize the enormous impact of industry-university collaborations and strive to support them with long term, stable and well-established policies.

The Triple Helix model has brought us some of the most successful scientific enterprises over the last few decades. However, to have this model reach its full potential, all partners must recognize the challenge it brings: to come together as a truly disruptive force, and yet maintain their true identity in society. If industry, governments, and universities succeed in this mission, then there are many more scientific revolutions to come.


[1] Making Industry-University Partnership Work, Science| Business Innovation Board, AISBL 2012.

[2] Best Practices for Industry-University Collaborations, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2010.


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