Five tips for engaging with the private sector

Government funding is increasingly hard to secure in many countries, leaving academic scientists to cut back on their research or find creative new sources of money. Meanwhile, the private sector has dramatically reduced its fundamental research activity, but remains willing to pay for academic expertise. To find out how to seize these opportunities, we spoke to researchers who have successfully incorporated private sector collaborations into their academic or non-profit research programmes.

An image showing the concept of attracting funding

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While industry isn’t quite throwing money about, it’s still possible to net some

Make the approach

Contacting companies is fundamentally different from obtaining academic research grants. In the absence of dedicated formal programmes or funding bodies to apply to, you often need to establish contact yourself. This can mean staying in touch with your former grad students who moved to industry, presenting at conferences that promote applied research, or exchanging visits to discuss possible collaborations.

If you are visible outside of purely academic circles, contacts may also come to you. Thomas Carell, professor of organic chemistry at LMU Munich in Germany, was contacted by the chemicals company BASF following one of his lectures. Their venture capital unit was keen to explore new directions and decided to fund Carell´s research program to develop DNA tools for diagnostics. This research led to patents and eventually the foundation of a company.

Decide what type of collaboration is best for you

There are many reasons a company might want to collaborate with an academic lab: accessing fundamental research know-how and instruments, finding future recruits, commercialising academic research or outsourcing a research project or testing service.

Imagine the following example. A company’s product has failed, but their R&D team lacks the diagnostic equipment such as electron microscopes or NMR spectrometers needed to find the source of the problem. This is where a university research lab can step in and save the day.

Carl Patton, emeritus professor in the department of physics at Colorado State University in the US, built his research program around measuring properties of ferromagnetic materials. He started to work with companies in the disk-drive industry to help them better understand the magnetic materials in their hard drives and to solve any problems they ran into.

The relationships he developed with companies grew beyond problem solving. ‘Giving tutorial presentations on my ferromagnetism work brought lots of interest from companies and government labs,’ Patton says. ‘People realised we might be able to help them with their product development.’

Offer help in the company’s currency

In academia, you can concentrate on advancing knowledge and making new discoveries. But a company’s priority is the bottom line: whatever service you provide to a private sector company, it needs to help make money in some way. This could be through reducing costs, solving manufacturing problems, improving production yields, or developing a new product.

To successfully collaborate with industry, you need to show potential partners that you are willing to concentrate on ideas that have potential for commercial success – not just on what is unique or interesting. Resolve to test new ideas quickly and objectively against targets set by industry. It also helps to develop a healthy sense of urgency in your team so that your pace more closely matches that of the private sector.

Agree publication rights upfront – and get creative

One of the biggest challenges of working with a company is the battle over publication. A company may be fine with research results being published once a patent application is submitted, but even then they may not want to publicise the knowledge more than necessary. Many smaller companies will even opt to keep information as a carefully guarded trade secret, in which case they will certainly not agree that you can publish your work.

However, there are creative ways to continue producing the publications you need for your academic career without violating intellectual property agreements. For example, Patton found that while he couldn’t publish the specific magnetic diagnostic results he had obtained for a company, he could publish results from the same techniques used on a similar material. The publications made no connection between the company and the results.

Embrace the synergy

Fundamental research and the private sector build on each other to drive technological progress. Highlight this to your students, postdocs and colleagues and speak well of both sectors; your attitude will be contagious and enhance your success. And there are great benefits: for example, working on an industry-funded project will give students connections and private-sector experience that will set them ahead of their competitors for jobs.

The results-driven nature of industry can also be a good motivation boost. ‘Graduate students like to see that their fundamental research will diffuse into an application,’ Carell relays from the feedback of his own students working on industry-funded projects. ‘Working with the private sector infused a sweet taste of translation into the group.’