Ed Krause has been working in R&D for Ford for nearly 20 years. He has global responsibility for developing technology and competitive advantage for Ford via collaborative research and development project portfolios involving universities and partner companies.
Specifically, he has responsibility for Ford Motor Company’s University Alliances and collaborative research programs, including Strategic Alliances with eleven large alliance partners and twelve smaller alliances. Each alliance partner has a dedicated contact at Ford and receives regular, bespoke Requests for Proposals. The company has a modest portfolio of academic collaboration partners in the UK.
How does Ford choose academic partners?
Historically, we worked more regionally. Now that we are global, we can really go wherever the best people are in a particular field. We don’t pick a region. We pick the best researchers in terms of their interests and capabilities. Our teams know them from conferences and from previous collaborations; we’ll follow professors as they move institutions. In any given research topic, we don’t care as much about the overall ranking of the engineering school, because our research questions are often in one area. It may be that the best person is not at a top 50 global school, but they’re the best in our specific area of interest. When we are considering a university for an officially designated "alliance" then we are interested in breadth of excellence and our choice more closely conforms with overall rankings.
We have relationships globally, but the projects compete against one another on merit, and that assessment is conducted centrally. We only allocate money via a specific global process. Every area within Ford is eligible to apply through the competitive process. We have developed a very easy template. We go to the alliance university and say: here are our topics of interest. We get their ideas in the template or in conversations. We don’t let them tell us anything confidential; we just keep it early-stage and simple. Then we look for a match at Ford. My team does the match making. If there is a good match, the internal Ford co-PI then builds the proposal working with the academic counterpart.
This process gives everyone a chance to participate. We fund proposals from certain places, and then the next year the proposals from somewhere else might win. The projects themselves are multi-year, and we don’t like to stop them midstream. We go out of our way never to orphan a grad student. In looking for partners, we don’t put our finger on the scale favouring one school over another. We should be doing projects together because of mutual interest and merit.
Since your application process is open, are all the collaborations structured the same way?
There are two ways we work with academia. The first is by unrestricted, three-year grants, in which we have no explicit IP rights, and we don’t pay overhead It’s not hands off, though; it’s very hands on. We worried that faculty didn’t want to have us engaged after we’d granted the funding, but we did an extensive survey of our partners and actually, faculty said the opposite. When we left them alone, they felt abandoned. They want to do more than to write a paper together. They want to put see their work implemented. We were glad to hear this because, at Ford, we want real collaborations and more involvement in these projects, and we were happy to find that our collaborators are willing to work closely together with us. And that’s not true just of engineers. We find that even more with data analytics people. They want to work closely with us because they want data.
The other way we do projects is via signed master agreements with our Alliance Partners. These groups still have to apply with their projects, but if we do accept them, we already have master agreements in place. The Alliance Partner program has its own budget and only Alliance Partners can apply. They can propose their ideas, but we don’t guarantee they’ll be funded. We’ve found that guaranteed money fosters an entitlement mentality. Luckily we have great Alliance Partners, and every school wins some awards each year.
For Alliance Partners, we find here that two years works best. If they do well on the two-year project, and apply for two more years, they’re much more likely to get more funding. What we don’t do give them three to four years up front. We used to do a three-year budget, and we would often get two years of work and one year of delay. Now, if you’re getting good results, we welcome a second proposal to extend for an additional two years.
We have eleven large alliance partners and twelve smaller alliances. They’re all working on actual research projects. In some rare cases, it’s consulting, but that’s the exception. We do some work with consortia, but we find we have less control. With bilateral projects, it’s in our control to fix problems. If there is a nebulous distribution of responsibility, that might not happen. We also do some government co-funding projects. In general, though, we’re much happier to spend our own money on things that are really meaningful to us; things we really need want, and move quickly.
Do the Alliance Partners like this application-based, hands-on approach?
We’ve asked universities about their experience with Ford, and their experience with other companies. They like the highly collaborative, approach. They know Ford is not going to cancel or lose interest, and they know that they will get engagement, challenge and input. It’s like the athletics coach who makes you work hard, but you like it, because you know you’re getting better.
Once they work with us, they tend to like working with us, and they continue to apply for project funding in the Alliance Partner program. Once faculty work with senior researchers at sophisticated global companies, they find that industry PhD researchers are as good as they are. They want to continue collaborating because they don't just get funding, they learn along the way. Also, we’re very easy about publication. We know they value publications, and we need to commercialize, so we develop agreements that ensure we each get what we want.
How are you measuring the success of these collaborations?
We have a structured approach to assess if projects were worth doing or not. Publications are not very meaningful as a metric to a company. Most patents are of limited use, because they don’t go into production. What we’re looking at is money saved, time saved, weight reduction, and things like that. We don’t attempt to monetize all projects. We don’t do an ROI on each project; we take a portfolio view. Most projects have nothing monetizable, and some are really successful. We assess the success of the whole portfolio.
We document the successes and that supports future investment the budget going forward. We know just what we got out of these past projects, and that helps us to project future success. We deliberately don’t expect all to succeed. We want to take some audacious bets, and as long as enough of them succeed, we’re happy.
Do you see cultural differences in engaging with UK university Knowledge Exchange offices compared to other countries?
The US university system seems to do more basic research in Engineering than the rest of the world, which tends to be more applied. We find that England, Germany and Australia are more alike in their applied approach, compared with the US. And they give us better IP terms. In general, best practice is more standard in the rest of the world. Here in the US, you fight really hard to get terms that are easily negotiated elsewhere. So if equally good in a technical area, we’d go with a school/region where the terms are better.
In the US, academic researchers often don’t have any real experience working in industry, besides maybe a summer internship. All of our researchers have spent 4-8 years in the academic world, but academics don’t have much experience in ours. That is not as true in the UK, Germany or Belgium. There, a much higher fraction of the professors have had meaningful industry experience. There is an immediate understanding; they get it.
Noelle Gracy works for Elsevier as Head of the Research Collaboration Office and writes the Research Collaboration Works blog.