Approach, Facilities and Complementary Expertise – what industry looks for in an academic partner

A new blog series from Noelle Gracy, Head of the Research Collaboration Office at Elsevier, is exploring the world of academic-industry collaboration through the eyes of the industry partner. The 7-piece interview series includes interviews from GSK, Siemens, Ford, Thales, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and Croda.

After reading each interview, I quickly saw the unique perspectives from each company as they viewed and approached collaboration slightly differently. Perhaps even more interesting though, is the common and repeated themes regardless of the changes in the sector and geographic location.


How do GSK, Siemens, Ford, Thales, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and Croda choose academic partners?

One repeated question throughout the interview series was asking why these companies choose to collaborate with the UK. Although the question was framed about the UK specifically, it was clear that ties with the UK were not politically, historically or geographically significant. The choice to pick a UK university was less about the UK and more to do with complementary expertise, approach to collaborations and facilities/capabilities. These just happen to be in a UK university.

So firstly, the overarching take-home for me is this... If you want to work with any of the companies above (and thus it seems industry in general), it is less to do with where you are and more to do with what you can bring to the collaboration. This essentially levels the playing field for all academic institutions and gives everyone the potential to collaborate with a strategic industry organisation. Finding a partner is about matching expertise and goals, highlighting your strengths and being flexible in your approach to collaborations.



Although the top 3 most referenced reasons for choosing a UK institution to partner with was approach, complementary expertise and facilities/capabilities, history was referenced twice as well as a strong backing from Government in research and science.

History is built over time, and with trust in an on-going profitable working relationship. Over time and with trust we see many companies creating critical mass in the institutions they partner with. Plainly speaking, these collaborations started perhaps because, for example, Rolls Royce has connections with the UK or a particular university. However, the ongoing relationship is not held together by history alone, but because the industry partner has a great working relationship with the institution and they understand each other, have good IP terms and good communication.

We are fortunate in the UK. We have a government wanting industry and academic to collaborate, and fund/support research and science. It’s about strengthening the offerings of your institution though, which help you find an industry collaborator.



What is the goal for the industry partner?

Its clear that understanding industry helps negotiate better IP agreements, build history and inform your approach to collaboration in the first place. What is industry looking for in a collaboration with you though? The most common answer it seems is commercialisation. IP is a somewhat sensitive subject, with different preferences to frameworks across all partners. However, the reality is that all industry has an interest in the commercialisation of the project. Some industry partners also value recruitment potential, publications and reputation as a collaborator. In fact, GSK openly promotes that developing science is the most important consideration for them in collaborations. However, with the recurring themes of IP continuing to appear in interview answers, it is apparent that commercialisation is a focus for all of them.

With government/funders challenging universities to demonstrate impact, commercialisation is a viable avenue to highlight impact to the UK economy, and support the UK becoming leaders on the commercialisation world stage.



Challenges Working with UK Institutions

IP/Commercialisation/Frameworks – 4
Timescales – 2


Even though they were given full opportunity to highlight a depth of challenges of partnerships with UK institutions, most of the companies interviewed only referenced IP and Framework challenges and timescales. This relates back to my earlier comment on the considerations of IP/Commercialisation/Frameworks being a reoccurring theme. However, timescales was an interesting point mentioned twice. It seems industry is very focused on goals and deadlines, often driven by metrics and KPIs. Collaborating and forming proper agreements can often add substantial time to projects, which already produces a challenge for industry. Thankfully, industry has advice on how to make this process more efficient.


Five tips to start collaborations with Industry

  1. Provide better IP agreements and/or be frank about IP expectations at the start
  2. Understand industry
  3. Build closer and more hands-on relationships with industry
  4. Rethink how you define support to be more than financial
  5. Promote open communication


There were lots of great suggestions from the industry interviewees on how to successfully attract industry partners to collaborate with. However, many seem to be unique to that company. This to me really highlights tip 2; understand industry. By doing some homework and understanding the goals, timescales, IP preferences and partnership style of an organisation you want to partner with can go a very long way to securing them. They directly match expertise and approach to their own.

Understanding Industry and building strong relationships was also highlighted by a larger survey conducted the State of European University-Business Cooperation (UCB) in 2016. After analysing 17,431 responses, the survey found for UK businesses, the major factors that limit the collaboration with universities are related to lack of people with business knowledge within universities and understanding different cultures. The second most cited factor was building a relationship based on commitment, trust and shared goals. You can read more about that survey here:


The specific collaboration interests and challenges of GSK, Siemens, Ford, Thales, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and Croda


Specific Interests: Developing science, publications and reputation as a collaborator
Specific Challenges: Brokering deals with junior-level staff


Specific Interests: More applied approach to research
Specific Challenges: With multiple R&D collaborations with many UK universities, attaining critical mass with a single partner is challenging

Rolls Royce

Specific Interests: Recruitment and access to world-class talent
Specific Challenges: Aligning goals and metrics


Specific Interests: Access to data, collaboration ecosystem, recruitment
Specific Challenges: Collaboration Agreements with Tech Transfer Office


Specific Interests: Access to world-class research
Specific Challenges: Visibility of UK capabilities



The interviews

This overview is a condensed summary of 7 very informative and honest interviews with key individuals within each organisation. With their longstanding experience in collaborations within industry, their insights are immensely valuable.


To read any of the interviews in full, please click below

Malcolm Skingle talks about why GSK chooses to work with UK Universities

Research collaborations at Croda:  Damian Kelly talks about why UK universities and UK industry work so well together 

Ed Krause talks about Ford’s open partnership processes and why a US company would choose UK Academic collaborators

Building on Success:  Mark Jefferies and Kate Barnard talk about why Rolls-Royce funds UK-based University Technology Centres 

Open Data and Living Labs:  Paul Beasley of Siemens talks about unique partnership opportunities at UK Universities