Academic-Corporate Collaborative Relationships: Cats and Dogs, or a Match Made in Heaven?

Published on: Wednesday, January 6th, 2016 View all Media

Given their sometimes conflicting missions and business models, academia and corporations are not often thought of as natural partners. Corporations are often focused on developing and selling products and services that will drive market success, while universities seek to make intellectual discoveries and increase public access to existing knowledge. With seemingly incompatible missions, one might wonder how scholarship-focused universities and business-hungry corporations could possibly find a middle ground. Despite the tensions, though, alliances and joint ventures between academic centers and corporations are not only occurring – they are driving discoveries in today’s competitive biotech and pharmaceutical markets.

The key to these successful collaborations lies in discovering how universities and corporations might benefit from a relationship with one another. This business symbiosis enables each party to feed off of the strengths of the other, resulting in strategic partnerships that provide greater competitive edge for universities seeking novel discoveries, and companies seeking market growth.

Benefits for Corporations

Investing in a relationship with an academic institution has the potential to prove incredibly valuable to a corporation, both in terms of cost-savings and high-quality project inception. Corporations are no longer simply passive donors to academia, but have taken on a role as active investors.

From a biotech and pharma business perspective, research and development of new products can be risky. Developing new products can be expensive, and the time and money invested may not be recuperated should the product fail later safety or efficacy testing. This risk is compounded by the consensus among providers that new drugs and biotech products not only need to work as expected, but also need to demonstrate improved patient or healthcare systems outcomes (e.g., reduced cost-of-stay, or reduced readmission rate). Having a drug that performs better than its predecessor is no longer enough – healthcare centers and payers are increasingly requiring evidence of system-wide impact before they will implement use or provide reimbursement. For this reason, corporate- academic collaboration can be invaluable to the initial research and development phases of production. By sharing the burden of cost for research and development, academic centers can prove invaluable to corporations working to develop and bring novel tests, drugs, and devices to market. Universities can also help with validation of new products by performing independent research and validation studies.

In addition to bolstering work on research and development, collaboration with academic institutions provides corporations with access to the university’s research community and faculty. University faculty can serve as a think-tank, developing research ideas that the company may not otherwise have the intellectual overhead to provide. These collaborations also offer opportunities to identify and train students who may later be employed by the corporation.

Benefits for Universities

Joining forces with corporate entities is advantageous to academic institutions as well. Federal funding for R&D and innovation has decreased, leading to increased competition for limited resources. By partnering with corporations, universities can utilize the corporation as a source of funding for research projects. While it remains important for the university maintain institutional autonomy, if the research mission of the institution (e.g., identification of biomarkers for a specific cancer type) can be aligned with the long-term goals of a corporation (e.g. development of such biomarkers into a marketable diagnostic test), the relationship can serve as a win-win for both parties. Universities may also profit from the lease of facilities and/or equipment, licensing revenue, and potential corporate funding for university-sponsored events.

For universities, the benefits of corporate collaborations extend beyond financial reward. These partnerships may also provide new job and internship opportunities for students, and expand research beyond the hypothetical to address “real world” problems. By providing new research and job opportunities in areas of critical need, the university may be able to attract higher-profile student and faculty applicants.

The Future of Collaboration

The best relationships are those which reward both parties. If the appropriate connections are made between corporate and academic management teams, the relationship is more likely to move beyond discussing possibilities, to doing actual work on collaborative projects. As more corporations begin seeking out partnerships with academic institutions, universities should develop and maintain “corporate relations” offices or departments. These offices, designed specifically to help the formation of corporate-academic collaborations, can serve as a portal through which corporate leadership members are able to access relevant university faculty and resources. Creating relationships between various members on both sides of the partnership by facilitating interactions between corporate executives and academic leaders is essential to maintaining long-term interest and investment. As competition in academic and corporate markets increases, so too will the necessity for active collaboration between the two.