Roundtable Review

Collaborations Between Industry and Academia: Managing the Triple-Helix Model
Posted 07 January '14

Triple Helix

The Triple Helix article series – 1

What’s in a name? When the Triple Helix model was introduced in the mid nineties, few scholars of science policy thought about the true significance of the metaphor. Linus Pauling and Robert Corey proposed a triple stranded structure in the race to define the structure of DNA in the 50s. Pauling and Corey’s model was quickly disproven: the structure has too many similar charges close to the core, resulting in intrinsic instability [1]. Similarly, too many partnerships between industry and academia are intrinsically unstable and fail to deliver the innovation they promise. Stability is a key issue for these collaborations, as the most productive initiatives are long term. However, long term collaboration presents a significant management challenge, which unsuccessful partnerships often fail to address.

In an industry-academic collaboration, everybody involved is asked to do something new: academics need to understand the commercial needs of companies and companies need to appreciate the different timescales and incentives of the academic world. A clash of cultures is often inevitable. However, good management can mitigate the consequences of such clash and pave the way to true innovation.

First of all, all cards need to be on the table from the start: it is essential for both parts to set out clear objectives for the partnership, and to acknowledge the different motivations and incentives involved. To this purpose, strong leadership from top management is essential. For example, most recognize the key role of University of California president Richard Atkinson in the success of UC’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Program (IUCRP), a matching grant programme created to catalyze innovation. Atkinson lobbied with government to obtain support for the programme, fostered a culture of innovation on campus and networked extensively with industry leaders to bring companies on board. As a result, IUCRP brought in 450 million USD in matched state and industry funding to UC campuses between 1996 and 2007 and engaged 353 companies in nearly 600 research partnerships in the same period.

On the company side, involvement of top management ensures that industry-university collaboration is aligned with the long-term strategy of the company, increasing the likelihood of developing outcomes with true commercial impact. Commercial and strategic vision might change with time, and a strong commitment by top management allows these changes to be integrated in the collaboration, rather than hampering it. However, partnerships live in the people involved in them. Over and over again, analyses of industry-university collaborations point to the people-factor as key to their success. Project managers on both sides need to be able to cross institutional barriers and establish a sense of common purpose across organizations. In this field, academia has some catching up to do: academic researchers often lack formal project managing training and, although collaborative efforts are growing, are often used to a culture of isolation. In contrast, industry has long recognized that project managing skills can be taught and managers in industry are often forced to interact with different departments, as most industry projects are team efforts.

Some academic institutions have recognized this problem and are starting to offer management training to academic researchers. For instance, the EU funded ReMaT [2] project provides formal training in managing techniques for early stage researchers. In the meantime, collaborations rely heavily on academics with first-hand experience of industry life. These cross-pollinating scientists are generally familiar with the strong managing framework that characterizes industrial research. They can develop tangible milestones and timelines and revise them as needed. Academics sometimes resist formal management: for instance, serious concerns were raised when scientists from the BP-supported Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) [3] were asked to submit yearly progress reports, a process many thought too bureaucratic. However, faculty soon recognized that this review process accelerated rather than hampered innovation, as the feedback and discussion allowed productive real-time redirection of research projects.

At the same time, over-management of industry-university collaborations could jeopardize the very same productivity they are meant to increase. Good management requires constant feedback and adjustment, based on measurable outcomes. However, metrics such as number of papers published or patents filed often misrepresent the true value of a partnership. The focus should be on shared objectives and quality of the research, rather than numbers. In addition, non-tangible outcomes, such as the exposure of students to industry environments or the creation of an innovation environment in overly-institutionalized environments need also to be considered.

Overall, strong management frameworks supported by top management and implemented by bridge-building project managers are essential for the success of collaborations between industry and academia. It might not work in chemistry, but it turns out that triple helixes can be pretty stable, if enough people are pulling in the same direction.


[1] It was later found that triple stranded DNA can exist in nature and is involved in regulating gene expression.



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