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If long-distance relationships are hard enough, imagine trying to start and maintain a collaborative research project between teams in academia and industry who are based on different sides of the globe. It might make things easier if you can find a partner in your neighbourhood (or country), but science is a global enterprise. Getting innovation out of academic labs and onto the market requires collaborating with industry across borders.
Location is a challenge for universities
Some universities and research institutes, particularly those in Asia, Australia and South America, face a bigger challenge than others in establishing international collaborations with industry. Most of this comes down to location. In a lot of cases, a lack of national research and development (R&D) infrastructure means that there isn’t a domestic path that universities can take to commercialise a breakthrough or discovery with industry.
This requirement to collaborate internationally was recently shared with us in a conversation with Fiona Nelms, the Director of Technology Transfer at the Australian National University:
“In Australia, international collaboration is a must. We don’t have the breadth of industry or company R&D centres as the US or Europe”.
Alastair Hick, the Director of Monash Innovation, also shared with us a similar perspective about the national R&D ecosystem in Australia:
“We have very little choice for much of our large scale collaborations in Australia other than to work internationally. It’s part of how we need to do business when our local R&D is relatively limited.”
There are also physical challenges that make the logistics of an international collaboration difficult. Transporting delicate materials, live cells, and researchers each present their own complexities.
Building trust, finding synergy, and establishing productive working relationships between teams across time-zones can be tough at first. Teleconferencing and a decent internet connection make this easier. But it might take a few early-morning or late-night calls.
“Given the distances involved, [both] within Australia and internationally, we are often engaging via email, telephone or video conference anyway rather than in person. Distance and time zones are an issue for us, but the team are used to calls out-of-hours and long-distance travel” – Fiona Nelms, Head of Technology Transfer at ANU.
Even with a flexible-hours work culture that opens the door to partners further afield, an initial face-to-face meeting can be invaluable. Having both sides of a collaboration understand each other’s aims, requirements, and approaches to working helps to establish the foundations for a successful partnership.
“When we can, we make the effort to meet partners in person even if it means [adding] some extra time on existing travel” – Fiona Nelms.
Location is a footnote for industry
The responsibility of commercialising academic research doesn’t fall solely with the institute. Industry, companies and R&D professionals have just as much of a part to play in ensuring that distance isn’t an issue when it comes to making the most out of academic research.
When we asked R&D professionals – after reading about a new breakthrough what was the most important consideration in making a decision to initiate a conversation with a university – only 6% of the respondents noted ‘location’ as a determining factor.
This sentiment — that location isn’t high on the list of concerns for R&D professionals engaging with university innovation — was also highlighted in a recent article by Noelle Gracy, the head of Elsevier’s research collaboration office. In this article, Noelle dissected nine interviews that she ran with R&D professionals in Chicago at the UIDP27 conference last year. None of the R&D professionals Noelle interviewed selected new academic partners based on their location.
The appetite for global university-industry collaboration
Some of the worlds most game-changing innovations have been developed through international collaborations between academia and industry. There’s the deployment of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by the pharmaceutical industry (a disease that affects 4.7% of the global adult population), and the commercialisation of WiFi by researchers at the CSIRO (who have licensing agreements with 90% of the global telecoms industry, generating revenue exceeding AU$430 million).
Out of the 6,000+ interactions between teams in academia and industry that have been initiated through IN-PART’s matchmaking platform, 75% are between partners in different countries.
Breaking that figure down, 72% of the industry interactions UK universities receive through IN-PART are initiated by companies overseas. That’s compared to 63% for universities in the USA. And for universities in Australia, 96% of their interactions with industry through IN-PART were initiated by an international partner.
The Australian National University match the Australian average; 96% of the conversations that they’ve started with R&D teams through IN-PART are based overseas. As Fiona at ANU highlighted to us, an open and proactive approach to working with R&D teams around the world ensures success.
“I don’t think that we approach national or international partners differently. We haven’t faced significant challenges with contract negotiations with overseas companies — except the language challenges with Chinese companies. We always seek to find a mutually beneficial position in all our contracting and pride ourselves in being flexible where we can to meet our partners’ needs” – Fiona Nelms, Director of Technology Transfer at ANU.
In the levels of interaction shown through IN-PART, the Australian National University’s international approach to working with industry, and in the disregard for university location as a determining factor for R&D professionals, it’s clear to see that there is an appetite for global university-industry collaboration.
Photo credit unsplash.com
The article was originally published on the IN-PART webpage on 5 September 2019, and has been reposted in the UIIN blog under a full permission granted by the author.