They need each other but they do not understand each other. Universities and corporations belong to two different worlds in which opposing cultures rule. They do not speak the same language. As a result, “Collaboration between them is a phenomenon of growing importance for creating and transferring innovations that are essential for economic development,” say María Ángeles Montoro, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, and Eva Maria Mora, professor at the King Juan Carlos University, in a research study published recently in Universia-Business Review.

In recent years, meaningful efforts have been made to take maximum advantage of research done in publicly funded universities, and to apply its results to society and the corporate world. Although Europe occupies a leading position in many scientific and technical fields, the anticipated results have not been achieved because a cooperative network [between universities and companies] does not exist. To deal with this problem, the European Union has proposed the creation of a common market in science, similar to the market that exists for goods and services in Europe. The EU hopes that, by 2010, three percent of Europe’s Gross Domestic Product will be devoted to research, the researchers say, adding that perhaps that will enable Europe to compete with countries that are currently leaders in science and technology, such as the United States and Japan.

The system for transferring technology from universities to corporations is advancing at an uneven pace from country to country. In Spain, although the relationship between universities and corporations has gradually intensified, “it has yet to reach a desirable level,” according to the paper.

Barriers and Obstacles

The authors explain that several obstacles need to be overcome. Most of these are rooted in barriers of culture and communications, and in the challenges associated with exploiting the results of research. 

More specifically, the study notes that universities and companies are very different when it comes to their ethical codes. In universities, the fundamental basis of ethical norms involves “no privacy rights for knowledge generated through scientific activity; freedom to publish the results of research; professional prestige [of research]; and the generation of high-quality research and knowledge.” In contrast, corporations are ruled by practically the opposite rules, such as “privacy rights for knowledge achieved from research; no publication of the results that such research generates; a focus on profitability; and the application of research to corporate strategy and to improving the company’s competitive position.”

From an organizational point of view, both communities also belong to quite different worlds. While bureaucracy and rigidity govern the structure of universities, companies base their success on achieving flexibility and adaptability. Beyond that, in universities, there is an excessive fragmentation of departments; no system for rewarding research efforts, and a fixation on long-term goals, the paper notes. All these characteristics of the academia world are the opposite of the usual norms in the corporate world. Moreover, in business, research and development activities are integrated. There is a system for remunerating researchers, and there is a focus on goals that are short-term.

As a result of these very different values and organizations, universities and companies “speak different languages.” Nevertheless, the authors explain that relations between the two kinds of institutions are expanding. They have a wide range of shared interests, and the flow of knowledge is moving in both directions.

The second large group of obstacles involves the way research takes place, and the way it can be exploited and commercialized, according to the paper. One of the greatest fears in the corporate world is that academics will appropriate the results of their research and start their own businesses. To avoid that, companies often create a number of restrictions concerning the type of research; disclosure and publication of its results; and the time frame in which such activities can take place. These restrictions often create problems in the relationship between universities and enterprises. Quite frequently, a corporation obliges a university to focus on a specific area of research, which the university can decide to reject if it is damaging to its educational standards. Universities prefer to carry out long-term research projects while companies prefer short-term projects that are focused on solving practical problems, according to the authors.

Academic researchers are interested in spreading the results of their research through specialized magazines because that practice confirms their reputation within the scientific community. The authors believe that it is fundamental for any company to define which kinds of results can or cannot be disseminated. Finally, companies prefer to publicize their research results so that they can patent them. The subsequent delays are most damaging for young scientists beginning their careers. As a result, both parties should try to arrive at an agreement about the maximum time for delaying the publication of such results in order to legally protect those results. The researchers warn that “it is not advisable to cooperate with a university when it is essential for the commercialization process to preserve absolute confidentiality for an indefinite period.” Nevertheless, they say, joint publication by both parties reflects the success of any collaboration between a company and a university.

The Need for a Legal Framework

To overcome this long list of problems, the authors recommend “creating a legal framework that reduces – or even eliminates – the impact of these barriers in order to improve the way results are exploited, and without harming both parties.” They propose the following guidelines for carrying out such initiatives:

Protect the ownership of patents that could be obtained as a result of academic research and development. The authors say that it is necessary to create an efficient system of incentives that facilitate the interchange of information between industry and academia. On the other hand, they emphasize the importance of providing adequate protection for intellectual property that stems from research done in public-sector institutions.

Determine the publication rights for the results of research. The study recommends establishing a balance between using confidentiality agreements and protecting intellectual property that is fair from the viewpoint of both parties. To achieve this balance between exclusivity and the dissemination of results, the authors recommend that universities not work on similar areas with third party entities while research continues, and as long as publication of its results is delayed. On the other hand, companies must recognize the rights of universities to publish.

Design an adequate system of incentives and compensation that is consistent with technology transfer goals. University researchers must deal with serious shortcomings when it comes to collaborating with companies. On the one hand, academic researchers do not usually receive any economic rewards. On the other hand, their research efforts are neither clearly defined nor highly valued, since universities compute only the number of hours devoted to teaching, not the hours dedicated to research. Nor is this sort of cooperation adequately valued within the university curriculum, which cares almost exclusively about getting published in scientific journals. As a result, researchers usually choose those R&D projects that are suitable for publication in international journals, rather than those projects that may be more interesting but which are not guaranteed to lead to a published article after they are completed.

To deal with these shortcomings, the authors recommend that the academic curriculum give adequate consideration to those R&D projects that are done in collaboration with companies, and promote an exchange of personnel between the university and the corporation.

Identify those factors that improve the prospects for successful collaboration. The study notes some of the key factors that can be integrated into a strategy for collaboration. These include establishing a common goal to reach specific levels of trust and commitment between the parties, and mutual acceptance by both parties of their separate interests. In that regard, it is very important to measure the success of any cooperative effort with several different yardsticks, such as patents, publications, knowledge generated and so forth. There should be no one criterion that dominates.

Employ intermediaries to bring companies and universities closer to each other. The authors emphasize the importance of relying on academic administrative personnel to make the necessary connections between their “customers” – the companies – and their “suppliers” – the scientists. There is a consensus, the authors assert, that “these kinds of people help to improve relationships between companies and universities, and reduce obstacles and barriers that exist between the two [kinds of institutions].” Nevertheless, the authors warn that these kinds of intermediaries can occasionally adopt an overly bureaucratic attitude that winds up endangering the collaborative process.