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Three Success Factors For Commercializing Academic R&D

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In today’s hyper-competitive global economy, innovation is one of the key pillars for success in the 21st century. The speeding pace of obsolescence requires innovation. As more businesses move beyond marketing innovation, bleeding edge businesses are attempting to find new ways to maintain their innovative edge versus the global competition.

One way that today’s businesses are attempting to maintain their innovative lead is to tap directly into a primary source of future innovation: academia. However, tapping into academic research has proven extremely difficult from a return on investment perspective. Numerous approaches have been attempted concerning the commercialization of academic research but it can be stated that today’s approaches can still be classified as “hit and miss” and do not necessarily provide the consistency that businesses crave.

The sad reality is that commercializing academic research has been tried numerous times but without any repeatable success. Every conceivable incarnation has been attempted from direct partnerships with academic labs to co-innovation agreements to licensing and commercialization deals. For one reason or another these attempts to commercialize academic research have only been partially successful. There are many reasons why commercialization of academic research has been so difficult, including:

(1) Different Fundamental Motivations: One can’t forget that the primary motivations behind operating a business and operating an academic institution are different. In their purest forms, academic institutions and the private sector are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Academic institutions were established to provide a safe and open environment for academic inquiry devoid of any concerns that might bias the inquiry while the private sector was organized to ensure fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders. While there has been some movement towards common ground between the two parties such as the growth of public private partnerships, there is still much work to do to overcome the fundamental differences.

(2) Different Cultures: Businesses are designed to be results oriented and as such their culture is designed around that results-based orientation such as the utilization of hierarchy to ensure productivity and efficiency in the production of goods and services. Academic institutions are the exact opposite.

(3) Different Result Focus: The end result focus for businesses has always been to produce the goods or services that are demanded by the market at a profit. Academic institutions are focused on delivering academic results that answer fundamental academic questions or contribute to the development of knowledge.

While all businesses and academic institutions are looking for a consistent and replicable framework, there are lessons that can be taken from today’s “hit and miss” approaches that can be used to build new approaches. Businesses and academic institutions have learnt that there are three critical success factors for them to have a reasonable probability of achieving a mutually beneficial results:

(1) Build Long Term Relationships: For businesses to get the results they are looking for from their academic partners, specifically scientific developments that help the business increase competitive advantage, it is necessary to build long term relationships as the differences highlighted above need to be addressed and that requires a long journey of mutual cooperation. As such, businesses must view academic institutions as long term partners where they need to invest significant resources into building the founding frameworks to finally achieve the results they are looking for. Much like when a business invests in an emerging market economy, it takes a significant amount of development and trial and error before the investment finally pays dividends whether it is in reduced manufacturing costs or profitable sales.

(2) Gain Trust: Trust is defined as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other party will perform a particular action to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control the other party”. This is particularly important when it comes to collaborating on technology development, as businesses and academic institutions expose themselves to a degree of risk as both parties are investing resources into the relationship. Taking the effort to build a high degree of trust between a business and an academic institution when discussing the commercialization of research improves the willingness of both parties to share information related to scientific requirements and outcomes enabling both parties to achieve more efficiently and quicker mutually beneficial results.

(3) Produce Tangible Outcomes: While for businesses tangible results are part of their core value proposition, this is a complete anomaly for academic institutions. Changing the mindset of academic institutions to one that is even slightly oriented towards tangible results will take an infinite amount of patience and resources. Whether it is providing employees to assist in educating researchers on how to develop business cases or providing additional resources to move from theoretical to practical, businesses will have to contribute an extensive amount of their knowledge and expertise to enable academic institutions to develop their skill sets to produce tangible results.

As the global economy continues to experience rapid and significant shifts and as businesses continue to find new ways to ensure innovation is part of their culture and DNA, academic institutions will increasingly play a role in terms of market competitiveness and innovation. Both businesses and academic institutions are increasingly developing symbiotic relationships due to the pressures brought about by external macro-economic forces. These external macro-economic forces include everything from increasing competition from traditional and non-traditional players, greater demands from new and existing stakeholders and all under reduced profitability and competitive advantages. However, it will be a long journey to build a sustainable culture and framework for academic research to be commercialized effectively due cultural and motivational differences. That being said, there are a number of critical success factors that both businesses and academic institutions can not only be aware of but implement to improve the probability that their joint partnership yields results sooner than later.

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