Partnering With Academia
June 1999 -- Focus On: Perspectives
By: Suanne J. Klahorst
Formerly a specific legal term, partnering now also describes a variety of contractual collaborations, and even non-contractual agreements, such as partnering with the local community. Forming a "partnership" today involves two prerequisites - desire to understand your partner's needs and desire to work together toward common goals.Posing partnering questions Partnering with academia is a natural fit for any technology-based industry, providing that the companies involved find the right fit and infrastructure to make their goals mutually beneficial. The following questions must be answered to achieve a successful outcome:What types of projects are suitable for university partnerships?
Not all projects are conducive to academic collaboration. Long-term goals are easier to address than short-term goals. For an urgent, customer-based problem, you might not want to rely exclusively on academic resources. Universities march to a different drummer than businesses - the beat of the academic calendar. The main customers at a university are the students, and all others are next in line. A clear and understandable expectation of the required response time is critical. Periodic benchmarks and quarterly reporting should be specified in research contracts. In the event that the project timeline becomes unduly delayed, companies need a logical point at which to cut their losses and opt out gracefully. It's always wise to have a contingency plan for unforeseen circumstances, especially if timing is critical to success. The benefits of using university expertise for analytical assistance are considerable, particularly if equipment costs are prohibitive or if the analysis is performed irregularly. Analytical services represent one university partnership with a decent chance for a rapid turnaround, but only if the timing does not conflict with final exams, graduate-student orals or prearranged travel. These contracts are often simple business contracts, and seldom involve complicated issues of intellectual property. Overhead may be applied; however, the rate might differ from that of research contracts. Accurate rheological measurements, for example, require a good deal of equipment and expertise. The Food Engineering Rheology Laboratory at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, NC, offers a battery of standard testing parameters on a variety of devices. Christopher Daubert, assistant professor of food engineering, provides the necessary guidance to companies looking for data on viscosity of liquids, texture profiling, and compression and tension of solid materials, to name a few options.What if the university is unresponsive to a partnering inquiry?
Even if individuals are very interested in forming a collaboration, the university as a whole may appear unresponsive because of other priorities. Like industry, most academic institutions have gone through downsizing, and faculty and staff are overextended. Just because they do not answer your phone calls promptly, or respond to your e-mail within 24 hours, doesn't necessarily mean they aren't interested. After developing a working relationship with individuals who have the expertise you seek, response time should improve. In project mode, you may want to communicate directly with the staff analyst or graduate student doing the research. These communications must be approved in advance, however, since university culture dictates a top-down hierarchy that must be respected for successful partnerships.What about research contracts?
Confidentiality and intellectual property are important issues. Confidentiality agreements are fairly routine, so get a copy of the standard agreement for legal review. One of the most critical considerations is the standard clause describing intellectual property rights and exclusive (or frequently nonexclusive) licensing to new inventions. Many universities rely on intellectual property for income, so a careful legal review helps early on in the process.Is partnering affordable?
Costs associated with industry-sponsored research vary widely. Research-contract budgets include staff and student salaries, travel expenses, supplies, publication costs, equipment and overhead. Student labor is generally considered a bargain for the level of expertise obtained. Overheads vary from institution to institution, and can be one of the largest line items. However, some types of projects might qualify for reduced overhead, so ask before agreeing to a final budget. Also, special programs might be uncovered if partnering plans allow flexibility. State institutions, for example, may give state agencies a reduced rate on overhead for state-sponsored programs. Federal funding can also qualify a project for reduced overhead rates, as illustrated in the following case study.A successful partnership Downsizing often means that the responsibility for keeping the United States in the forefront of technology falls to federal organizations and universities. The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds basic university research, creates and maintains the infrastructure for collaboration between industry, academia and government. NSF accomplishes this through the Industry University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) program. Unique to the food industry is the NSF Center for Aseptic Processing and Packaging Studies (CAPPS), a multi-university, multi-company consortium for developing aseptic technologies. Each company member puts in an annual membership fee, used exclusively to fund research at a low overhead rate. Some industry members with less than 500 employees receive state grants to pay part of their membership. Member companies invite faculty from cooperating universities to present research proposals. The companies vote on which proposals to fund, and they share intellectual property. Grants from the NSF provide funds for administration and company recruitment. The consortium benefits everyone involved. John Schwindt, senior engineering manager, facilities/special projects, Lipton Innovation and Technology Center, Stockton, CA, attends CAPPS meetings through his company's parent organization, Unilever. "Not only does industry get the middle- to long-term research it needs, universities have an opportunity to develop research programs that are keyed in with industry needs," observes Schwindt. "Another benefit of the consortium is the relationships that are developed among industry and academic researchers." The opportunity to improve the regulatory status of aseptic processing is another benefit. "CAPPS spearheaded a series of workshops that led to the first filing with FDA for a low-acid multiphase (solid/liquid) aseptic process," states Ken Swartzel, head of the NCSU food science department and CAPPS director. "We consider this filing a major achievement, because it proves that FDA approval for this type of aseptic product can be obtained. It also demonstrates that industry, universities and the government can work together to achieve a mutually beneficial result." People Power If there's one single factor responsible for forming successful partnerships, it's people. Most major food companies have a working relationship with one or several major universities, and they also regularly exhibit at college career fairs to recruit the best talent. Alumni organizations and networking enable students to form lifelong relationships with faculty and staff - an invaluable resource throughout their career. Resource-limited companies might believe they have restricted access to the best academic institutions. However, their success is even more dependent on accessing these resources than in organizations where partnering goes unquestioned. To cultivate new academic relationships and tap into academic resources, consider the following advice:Use your contacts. Alumni are the best source of university contacts. "The contact" is even more important in academia than in business. Several contacts, one for each department from which you want to access resources, might be required.Shop around. The first stop may be a food science or nutrition department, but don't stop there. Other potential resources include the biochemistry, business-management, biology, engineering, microbiology, physics, pomology, agronomy and animal-science departments, as well as veterinary and medical schools. Hire an intern. Summer is still the best, but not the only, time to reap benefits. A special project involving the student in a cross section of operations provides company exposure and a positive experience, and ultimately sends a positive message to the university.Go back to school. Many universities offer short courses, conferences and professional meetings.Make an appointment. Discuss areas of mutual interest with the department chair. Meetings are already part of existing business activities, and the only change is a refocus on attending the meetings that maximize exposure to academic researchers.Do your homework. Many college websites help identify their faculty members' specific research interests. Keep in mind that the casual Internet inquiry will only go so far, and eventually, some face-to-face contact will be necessary to establish a working relationship.Locate industry-friendly campus organizations. University programs funded through industry sponsors are more responsive to industry needs than individuals confined to the publish-or-perish reward system. Not every university has an industry welcome wagon, but if they have a reasonable facsimile, tap into it for advice and guidance. Meetings of the mind Companies can also look beyond the food-science department when developing partnering relationships. This is particularly true with the new emphasis on linking medical treatments to food and nutrition - novel ideas often require novel marketing. John Cooke, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, conducted research in vascular medicine for ten years at Stanford and Harvard, Boston, MA. "My research group was the first to report that one could restore nitric oxide production in patients with hypercholesterolemia (high blood cholesterol) by administering L-arginine, a semi-essential amino acid." However, the effective dosage of 9 grams of L-arginine called for a better delivery system than the 18 capsules (each 500 mg) that patients would need to swallow regularly. Cooke assisted the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing for 18 months to transfer the L-arginine discovery to the pharmaceutical industry. Frustrated with the lack of interest, he finally decided to commercialize the technology himself, and founded Cooke Pharma, Belmont, CA, with a hand-picked group of Stanford researchers. The new firm conducted additional trials to demonstrate improvements in vascular function, and developed a nutraceutical discovery program based on noninvasive assays of vascular function in humans. Ultimately, working with Nelson Nutraceuticals, a firm that had brought other nutraceutical bars to market, led to the HeartBar™, which was developed and test marketed in Sacramento, CA. An independent marketing survey reported that 70% of the cardiologists in the test market are now recommending the HeartBar to patients with vascular disease. "The most wonderful thing for me is seeing my 15 years of research take the form of something I can hold in my hand, and that is helping people today," states Cooke. Some universities have recognized these new trends and are fostering programs to get new technology to market within their geographical sphere of influence. State and university planners recognize that it's in their best interest to incubate new businesses and retain local talent, rather than trying to attract business from other regions. The University of California San Diego's (UCSD) Connect program represents fifteen years of experience in the operation of a technology and entrepreneurship program. This program helps develop sound business plans, and provides coaching for pitching ideas to investors. Measuring success in terms of wealth creation, UCSD Connect takes credit for $500 million in funding attributed to participants between 1995 and 1997. With 500 dues-paying members and a budget of $1.6 million, the program organizes frequent seminars, forums and other programs to assist entrepreneurs. Bill Otterson, executive director of the program, observes that only a small percentage of new businesses are coming from faculty, while most are coming through post-doctoral researchers.Endowed-chair opportunities For organizations that operate on the grand scale, the endowed chair - faculty positions paid through interest from industrial or personal contributions - is an effective university-industry partnership for educating future professionals. Industry associations find these useful because they benefit a specific industry sector. One example of a successful corporate endowment is the Anheuser-Busch endowed professorship of malting and brewing sciences at the University of California, Davis. Recently selected as the first professor to seat this chair, Charles W. Bamforth, professor, department of food science and technology, brings industry experience from Bass PLC, U.K., and Brewing Research International, U.K. Bamforth remarks, "The Anheuser-Busch endowment is a reflection of the many years that UC Davis has been sending graduates into the world of brewing. This endowment supports a program that is of value to the entire brewing community, providing a rich stream of well-trained people who are enthusiastic about carrying forward the brewing industry and brewing supply industries such as malt, hops, and brewery equipment." Partnering with academia is the smart choice for leveraging research funds and outsourcing a variety of company functions. As the university culture evolves to attract corporate funding, food companies will continue to look to universities for the basic research and technical expertise that keeps them competitive in the global marketplace. Suanne Klahorst is a food-science writer employed by the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research, a program at the University of California, Davis, that facilitates university collaborations with industry and government agencies. Her e-mail address is [email protected].Back to top