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Global Companies Partnering with U.S. Universities

Hundreds of U.S. universities are collaborating with global companies to help them bring innovative ideas to the American marketplace.

Location USA 2016
Incoming M.S. students are eligible to apply for the BMW Fellowships at Clemson as part of the Fastlane Program.
Incoming M.S. students are eligible to apply for the BMW Fellowships at Clemson as part of the Fastlane Program.
Universities, by their nature, are complex entities. Even having worked for one (Ohio State University) for the past seven years, I have yet to comprehend the entire breadth and depth of the institution. And yet, there is no greater collection of knowledge, talent, curiosity, and expertise than that found on the campus of a modern American university.

In an environment where higher education is trying to hold the line on tuition and government funding is dwindling, both in direct support and research expenditures, universities are trying to leverage that collection of knowledge, teaching, research, and future workforce into greater industry collaboration. The University of Georgia’s Vice President for Research David Lee spoke for many large U.S. universities recently when he said increasing industry collaboration is a high priority: “It’s a way to connect our research to the real world, part of our land grant mission in the 21st century.”

Lee wouldn’t say his university’s expertise is for sale, exactly, but he acknowledges that increased connection with industry is “an important component of diversifying our portfolio of external funding.” And, he notes, “it’s good for our students who are involved in these projects, since many of them go on to work for industry sponsors.”

The movement of knowledge off campus and into the marketplace, as David Lee notes, is the mission of the United States’ land grant universities. The Morrill Act, passed during the Lincoln administration in the 1860s, gave federal land to states to underwrite new institutions of higher learning. These “land grant” colleges would then engage citizens (not just the elite) in the spread of knowledge, supporting an agrarian and a growing industrial economy.

U.S. Universities Partnering with Global Companies

  1. The University of Georgia

    The University of Georgia’s Vice President for Research David Lee spoke for many large U.S. universities recently when he said increasing industry collaboration is a high priority: “It’s a way to connect our research to the real world, part of our land grant mission in the 21st century.”
  2. Ohio State University

    Matt McNair, Ohio State’s vice president for Economic and Corporate Engagement, understands the tension between a university’s and a company’s cultures. His is a customer-service approach.
  3. University of Michigan

    University of Michigan brings a robust array of engineering, business, and medical expertise, as well as a stellar academic reputation to the table.
  4. Clemson University, South Carolina

    Clemson has developed satellite campuses devoted to specific academic and industrial fields.
  5. Purdue University

    Dan Hirleman, head of the Office of Corporate and Global Partnerships and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels rely on Purdue’s strong alumni network to build partnerships.
“Corporate Engagement”
The move to attract more of these partnerships dovetails with the corporate trend of shedding expensive research and development divisions. How, then, to match the research capabilities of the university with a company’s needs, particularly one from another country?

Increasingly, universities are establishing offices with “corporate engagement,” “global partnership,” and “research and economic development” in their names. High-energy experts, often from engineering or industrial backgrounds, are being hired to head these offices. Much as economic development professionals try to match community attributes with company needs, university corporate engagement officers match industry requirements with university experts and research. They negotiate timetables, monetary terms, and intellectual property rights. They are the matchmakers who negotiate the shoals of academic freedom, corporate exigency, and university expectations.

How are these connections made and what does a successful collaboration look like? Dominic Ehrismann and Dhavalkumar Patel with the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Switzerland compare the organizational cultures of universities and industry in the February 6, 2015 edition of Swiss Medical Weekly. “We found that understanding and respecting each other’s organizational culture and combining the intellectual and technological assets to answer big scientific questions accelerates and improves the quality of every collaboration.”

Universities and industries share common ground in creating societal value, doing research, improving their brands and reputations, finding cures, and tackling big questions. Ehrismann and Patel note the differences in the two cultures — differences that have to be negotiated carefully to craft win-win collaborations. For universities, concepts like public mission, publication, basic research, curiosity-driven, knowledge creation, open source, education, and academic freedom are paramount. Outside academia, industries are concerned with shareholder value, revenue, applied research, results, innovation protection, markets, and measurable objectives. The two are not mutually exclusive, however. Universities and industries share common ground in creating societal value, doing research, improving their brands and reputations, finding cures, and tackling big questions. It is in that common space that successful collaborations are born.

Different Approaches
Matt McNair, Ohio State’s vice president for Economic and Corporate Engagement, understands the tension between a university’s and a company’s cultures. His is a customer-service approach. “It’s sort of a paradox,” says McNair of entering a potential partnership. “We always have to understand what our needs are, but if we approach the company talking about our needs, we’re probably not going to fare as well as we will if we try to understand their needs and how we can solve their problems.”

McNair prepares for a meeting by researching the company ahead of time to see “what we can glean about their strategy and then we do research on campus to find out where our expertise might match their needs. We try to go in with at least a tentative plan about how we might work together. That has generally worked pretty well.”

Three hours north, the University of Michigan brings a robust array of engineering, business, and medical expertise, as well as a stellar academic reputation to the table. Michael Drake, the senior director of Government, Corporate and Foundation Relations, has built what peers call one of the best one-stop business portals in the business. The university’s Business Engagement Center (bec.umich.edu) brings all aspects of company-university collaborations under one tent.

Once through the door, says Drake, it is important to vet deals carefully. “An important thing for us is really understanding where the partner is coming from and what they are trying to achieve. Then from that conversation you know if you are starting from a point of realism about how our institution works and what it takes to garner the interest of the faculty.”

The Morrill Act, passed during the Lincoln administration in the 1860s, gave federal land to states to underwrite new institutions of higher learning. These “land grant” colleges would then engage citizens (not just the elite) in the spread of knowledge, supporting an agrarian and a growing industrial economy. If there is a good fit, Drake is up front about costs, timelines, and how intellectual property can be handled. “We’re happy to have any conversation, but we’re also comfortable saying, you know what, it would be great to have that investment, but it’s just not a good fit for us, for whatever reason.”

Clemson, South Carolina’s private land-grant university, takes a unique approach to corporate partnerships. Clemson has developed satellite campuses devoted to specific academic and industrial fields. In Greenville, Fred Cartwright, who spent most of his career with General Motors in Detroit, heads CU-ICAR, Clemson’s “innovation campus” devoted to automotive research. Academics are combined with corporate facilities in what Cartwright calls a technology neighborhood. “In the automotive community it’s a pretty small world globally, and they talk to each other and they hear about this space,” he says.

CU-ICAR’s most popular project is “Deep Orange,” an accelerated vehicle development program whereby Clemson partners with an OEM to design and build a new vehicle. “Students basically go through the same process that you would inside a car company, developing a business case, looking at target markets,” and eventually building the car they’ll take on the road to car shows and competitions. Companies get to “try on” Clemson students who will “hit the ground running when they’re hired,” says Cartwright.

A Country Focus
In West Lafayette, Indiana, Dan Hirleman was recently lured back to Purdue University, his alma mater, to head the Office of Corporate and Global Partnerships. He and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels rely on Purdue’s strong alumni network to build partnerships. Through a strategic planning process, Purdue decided to focus particularly on two countries, Colombia and India.

Hirleman says Colombia is a “manageable scale” with a population of nearly 50 million. “They’re committed to entrepreneurship and innovation and growing their society through high technology. Ag is huge, so Purdue, like a few other schools, has very highly ranked ag and engineering combined in the same place,” says Hirleman. He also believes the peace process in Colombia will open opportunities. Purdue is working with Colombian alums to build partnerships.

With 120 Indian faculty members, 1,600 Indian students, and many alumni from the country, India was a natural focus for Purdue corporate partnerships. One in particular is with Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. Both the CEO and Chairman of Dr. Reddy’s have advanced degrees from Purdue. Purdue partners with Dr. Reddy’s through student exchanges and pharmaceutical research.

American universities are more anxious than ever to partner with global companies. Connections may be made through alumni, professors, trade shows, or web searches. It is important for a company to be clear about its objectives and have open discussions with potential university partners about costs, IP ownership, and time frames. As Purdue’s Daniel Hirleman says, “Partnership is a big deal — that’s why we have this office.”

For a list of 200+ universities and their chief collaboration officers, visit FacilityLocations.com
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