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Universities Pursue Open Innovation Partnerships with Companies

The innovation landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Companies have now become comfortable with the idea of leveraging open innovation to help develop new products. Many companies in fact now favor collaborative innovation with universities and other organizations, instead of maintaining expensive in house research wings. Given that academia is often at the forefront of creating new technologies and pushing the envelope for emerging technologies, it is understandable that companies would like to partner with willing universities that have the required talent and expertise. Nokia, for example, has an open innovation partnership with major universities across the globe.

For universities, one powerful force was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, under which universities could retain ownership to inventions made under federal funding. This was subject to the condition that universities apply for patent protection and ensure commercialization upon being granted the patents through licensing. With the years behind us, this may seem like a small measure, but by enabling universities to own their research, the act has sped up commercialization of many innovations which were unusable due to federal ownership; and thereby helped new industries grow quicker. Just a decade later, university gross licensing revenues grew to $250 million in 1992.

Universities have now grown beyond their teaching arm, and view their research labs and faculty expertise as marketable resources. From the erstwhile ivory towers, universities today have evolved into well funded research hubs and are creating truly game changing technology. Following the American example, many other governments now let their universities own and commercialise their own patents, and even conduct industry sponsored research.

Actively seeking corporate partnerships

Universities are actively seeking corporate partnerships to capitalizing on  their research potential to generate revenues. Some of the ways they are doing so are discussed below.

  • Leveraging their patent portfolio:

    Many US universities now have size-able technology related patent portfolios. They are exploring avenues to commercialize those inventions by partnering with established companies as well as startups in return for fees and royalty payments.

  • Setting up conferences, events and forums:

    Realising that open innovation thrives on an open exchange of ideas, universities are organizing mixers, conferences and other events to provide companies a platform to interact with the various faculty and teams involved in university research. For example, University of California, Berkeley, is shortly hosting the first World Annual Open Innovation Conference. They are also setting up other forums where the open innovation discussion can continue on an ongoing basis.

  • Encouraging entrepreneurial skills and collaboration:

    Some of the efforts are also geared toward promoting entrepreneurial skills in universities in an attempt to encourage risk taking and innovation, even in internal projects which may not have corporate sponsors. For example Harvard Medical School team used open innovation to tackle a DNA sequencing algorithm.

Corporates benefit equally from these kind of partnerships. It becomes much easier for companies to identify emerging technologies and enabling them to channel technology related information into an organization, eventually opening up opportunities to acquire promising technology. At the end of the day, it’s a win-win outcome for both parties. Corporates get access to cutting edge innovation for their product development, while universities leverage their research labs and expertise to generate revenues.

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