Few things make more sense, a priori, than innovation partnerships between universities and industry partners. Universities get an opportunity to share their research insights and put their knowledge into action. Industrial players get fresh ideas on market challenges, and knowledge resources to fix existent problems. But the reality is this doesn’t always unfold as we would expect.
Universities get an opportunity to share their research insights and put their knowledge into action. Industrial players get fresh ideas on market challenges, and knowledge resources to fix existent problems. But the reality is this doesn’t always unfold as we would expect.
We know that scientists are reluctant to engage with industry partners, and that universities are often seen as unreliable and impractical partners for industrial innovation projects. Given the increasing pressure on universities to show the value of their research activities, we have accumulated knowledge on what makes researchers engage (or not) with industry 1, but we are still trying to find out how we can further motivate industry to seek out university partnerships.
Could training for SMEs be the answer?
In an effort to encourage university-industry partnerships (with the support of the IGL Grants Programme) we ran a pilot study - a half-day seminar on how to organise collaborations with universities. We thought this could be a first, even if informal, step towards engaging with the university. The pilot was run with SMEs in a non-urban area but close to a university campus. SMEs are often portrayed as ill-equipped to engage with other partners in their innovation efforts, as compared to larger organisations.
After involving over 30 firms from this specific region, we found that the path towards university-industry partnerships for SMEs might be more nuanced than expected.
After involving over 30 firms from this specific region, we found that the path towards university-industry partnerships for SMEs might be more nuanced than expected. First, SMEs’ managers hold perceptions on the innovation capacity of universities, even if they have never engaged with them to explore joint-projects, either formally or informally. Secondly, there are two distinct collaboration types, an academic-centred approach with the university as a supplier of talent (recruiting students or offering internships), and an innovation-project approach where the university is a knowledge partner (joint projects, research collaborations or consulting). Most firms in the region only consider the academic-centred approach. Third, and finally, the intervention (half-day seminar) was particularly effective with SMEs that already had an interest in, but did not know how to get started in university-industry collaborations.
Therefore, despite existing barriers and differences, a low-effort and low-cost intervention could help open opportunities for university-industry collaborations. Nevertheless, it remains challenging to change existing beliefs and opinions. Given this, an alternative approach would be to first work on interventions that could modify the pre-conceptions of the nearest university or research centre, and then work on interventions to move from collaboration intentions to actual engagement.
The pilot study uncovered valuable insights for a future trial. It showed the impact of underlying (positive or negative) perceptions from industry participants on university collaborations. Suggesting that being close to the university favours interaction, but also contributes to build (potentially biased) perceptions on the innovation capabilities of the university. When these underlying perceptions reduce the likelihood of engaging or even considering collaboration projects with the university, there is a risk of missing out on innovation and growth opportunities.
The pilot suggests that if SMEs hold pre-conceptions on what the university can offer, our training intervention might be too soft to change them. Therefore, the open question is how these pre-conceptions can be modified so that SMEs and universities can further benefit from joint collaboration projects.
Perkmann, M. et al. (2013) ‘Academic engagement and commercialisation: A review of the literature on university–industry relations’, Research Policy, 42(2), pp. 423–442. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2012.09.007.
- 1. In a systematic review on the topic it was found that individual characteristics (seniority and scientific productivity), organisational aspects (tech transfer support structure and peer pressure effects), and institutional elements (working in an applied science field) explain the differences in academic engagement with the industry (Perkmann et al., 2013).