| 5 minute read

Igniting economic growth: The power of university-industry partnerships

Elena Galán-Muros
Strategic partnerships podcast series header

During the 2023 UIIN Conference, we had an insightful conversation with Kelly Sexton, Associate Vice President of Research and Innovation Partnerships at the University of Michigan. Join us as we delve into the role of strategic partnerships in economic growth, and the vital influence of policies that can act as catalysts for fostering thriving university-industry partnerships.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Madeline Arkins:
Do you think strategic partnerships in universities play a role in driving economic growth?

Kelly Sexton:
Absolutely, they do. I’d like to frame the question by talking a little bit about our model. Innovation Partnerships at the University of Michigan has three core groups: Corporate Research Alliances, Licensing and Tech Transfer, and Ventures. We support all aspects of research commercialization at the university, going from strategic research collaborations, supporting licensing, and the formation of new companies and start-ups.

Research partnerships with companies can be one of our most effective tools for moving university research and technologies and discoveries out into the world. The companies already exist, they have product distribution mechanisms and they are robust and mature”.

In addition, we are often finding that, when companies are interested in partnering with a university, they want to know about our faculties, their research expertise and their ongoing research programs, but increasingly, we are seeing that they also want to be connected with our start-up companies. And, since we are also responsible for supporting start-up company formation, maintaining relationships with them and connecting them with resources and the investment community, we can help start-up companies create potential strategic partnerships with big companies.

Madeline Arkins:
What are the key drivers of success when you were navigating these relationships?

Kelly Sexton:
You need a commitment for this to be a long-term engagement, and that happens on both ends. The companies will need to allocate some resources to have someone tasked with understanding all aspects of the business needs and communicating and translating those needs to the university.

On the university side, we also need to be patient and we need to allocate resources to take that input and then connect it with our faculty. And work with our faculty to find alignment between their research interests and objectives and the company’s interests. And we all know there can be cultural differences between the corporate world and the academic world as an understatement.

All these things are possible, and we do them every day. It just requires thinking of this engagement not as a one-off transactional relationship or transactional engagement, but as a longer-term relationship.

Madeline Arkins:
Looking at University of Michigan’s model to partnerships, has there been any top achievements or top learnings over the course of your that you can share?

Kelly Sexton:
The need for alliance management in creating these longer-term relationships has really been one of our key learnings. Actually dedicating personnel to be a steward of that relationship, to make sure that the company is seeing continuing value in the partnership with the university and to ensure that our faculty and the university leadership are seeing the value in that partnership and that we’re continuously connecting new faculty with that research opportunity.

Madeline Arkins:
Is there currently anything policy-wise, nationally, or even institutionally that is either a facilitator or maybe an impediment to partnerships?

Kelly Sexton:
One thing that is fundamental to the American innovation ecosystem is the Bayh-Dole Act. It has been around for so long that I think we can sometimes take it for granted, but it was really crucial in establishing that universities in the U.S. can own the research discoveries and the inventions that are created on our campus, using federal research support. Whether the grant comes from the National Institutes or Government Departments, the university can own those resulting innovations.

Then, we are tasked with being the stewards of that intellectual property and in licensing it to the private sector in ways that drive economic prosperity in the country. Both when you are thinking about traditional tech transfer where we are patenting and licensing, to the start-up formation, or even when we are working with companies, the Bayh-Dole Act is foundational to what we do.

When a company is going to sponsor research on a university campus, there is some background intellectual property that might ultimately need to be a part of that research collaboration. The fact that we have clear title and ownership to that intellectual property makes things so much smoother when we are moving forward with this new research engagement.

Even though it’s been around since 1980, I think it’s really important to remember that every aspect of university research commercialization, from start-ups to licensing to strategic research partnerships with industry requires a very strong and robust Bayh-Dole Act as our policy framework.

Interested in more insights like this?

If you would like to build your one-time university-business relationships into long-term, strategic ones, head now to our video How to turn transactional university-business relationships into strategic partnerships? You can also listen to Jane O’Dwyer, (CEO of Cooperative Research Australia) as she shares her expertise on the unique role and impact of Cooperative Research Centers in Australia’s innovation ecosystem.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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