How to Overcome the Barriers to Academic & Industry Collaboration

by Arlen Meyers

How to Overcome the Barriers to Academic & Industry CollaborationAlmost 20 years ago, a report from the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine described the results of a conference addressing and the barriers to academic-industry collaboration and solutions to overcome them. While there has been slow progress addressing these issues, for the most part, the barriers persist and industry frustration with academic medical centers continues.

Trends in University-Industry Collaboration

  • Participants noted that university-industry research collaboration is becoming more frequent and extensive, with growing complexity in individual partnerships. Over the last two decades, industry-supported research has steadily grown nationally in amount and as a percentage of all university research.
  • Update: Industry supported research has increased with several research partnerships created between BIG PHARA and AMC drug discovery and development entities. Since the publication of the report, digital health has emerged as a new opportunity for industry-academic collaboration requiring new models that, in many instances, are unfamiliar to AMCs used to packaging and licensing drugs, diagnostics and devices. Some are outsourcing the function to digital health accelerators or incubators.
  • A number of collaborative mechanisms were discussed, including (1) university research sponsored by companies; (2) faculty consulting; (3) licensing of university-owned intellectual property to existing companies; (4) university support for start-up companies in the form of loans, grants, and equity ownership; (5) “mega agreements” between individual companies and universities that cover a range of interactions; (6) research centers and other government-supported efforts to encourage university-industry collaboration; and (7) industry consortia to support university research.
  • Update: Innovation centers have replaced technology transfer offices. Given the academic culture, some question whether they are capable of generating enough customer defined value to justify their expense and low research quotient i.e. the value produced per unit of input.
  • There is significant diversity in the approaches taken in different fields. Participants remarked on differences between industry-university collaboration in health care and the life sciences vis-a-vis[vis-à-vis] physical sciences and engineering. Most of the discoveries that have produced significant licensing revenue for universities have been in the life sciences.
  • Update: The vast majority of significant medical advances and the revenue that flows to those places comes from a hand full of leading AMCs
  • Participants noted that a growing array of rules, procedures, and institutions, particularly on the academic side, govern collaboration. Protecting and managing university-generated intellectual property has become a significant task, and some institutions are delegating this work to non-profit and for-profit subsidiaries.
  • Update: If anything, given the growth of regulation and compliance, the red tape is worse than before and significantly impedes academic faculty participation

Barriers to Collaboration and Tools to Overcome Them

  • Culture, management, and goal alignment. Despite the long experience that many companies and universities have in pursuing collaboration, workshop participants still considered the development of trust an essential but sometimes neglected precondition for success. The discussions covered tools for structuring and managing partnerships and approaches to reconciling different time horizons.
  • Update: Trust both internally and externally continues to be a major barrier
  • Institutional incentives. University and private industry incentive structures may not sufficiently recognize or reward the key contributions that ensure successful collaboration. Workshop participants discussed ways that incentive structures could be changed with funding mechanisms and evaluation systems that are better targeted.
  • Update: Several AMCs still refuse to grant promotion and tenure credit for the scholarship of entrepreneurship or have anti-entrepreneurial policies , procedures and taxes that make academic-industry collaboration too painful for most faculty
  • Proprietary rights. Issues of proprietary rights and their disposition were a special focus of the workshop. Proprietary rights issues are often linked to other areas such as project management and incentives. There was a broad range of perspectives on the issue of how aggressive universities should be in patenting and licensing their inventions. The participants also covered such issues as the patenting of research tools, the structure of university technology transfer operations, and agreements on confidentiality, and delay of publication.
  • Update: The patent landscape has changed and , in the case of digital health, might be irrelevant
  • Lack of a faculty entrepreneurial mindset In my view, because of the way faculty are chosen, developed and rewarded, about 1% have an entrepreneurial mindset
  • Lack of faculty entrepreneurial skills, knowledge, abilities or competencies Few faculty are interested in bioentrepreneurship education and training and, sometimes, discourage graduate trainees from participating. Iinstead, they see that activity as a distraction from the core research scientific mission and waste of grant time and resources
  • Lack of a sense of urgency and focus Industry focuses on what’s important. Academics focus on what’s interesting and they go wherever that leads
  • Problem solvers v problem seekers Industry focuses on tightly defined customer problems. Academics focus on basic research solutions looking for a problem
  • Different ways of keeping score Academics are judged by publications, grants and how many trainees they have. Industry measures profits.
  • Disagreement on process, people and culture innovation leadership and management KPIs

Possible Future Tasks

  • Participants made a number of suggestions on possible future tasks. Many participants believe the policy framework for university-industry interactions established by the Bayh-Dole Act, formally known as the Patent and Trademark Laws Amendments of 1980, is working well, while a few participants believe a fundamental reconsideration of that law is in order. Technically, the Bayh-Dole provisions influence university-industry collaboration only when a university invention is developed using federal funds.
  • Individual participants suggested that key industry and university bodies consider development of (1) accepted standards for training and credentialing of university and industry technology transfer professionals; (2) a statement on acceptable indirect cost practices in university-industry research, which may need to address the government’s role; and (3) a declaration of principles concerning responsible conduct in industry-university research collaboration.
  • Several participants stated that further study and exchange of ideas on the way universities successfully structure technology transfer operations would be useful. Similarly, a detailed examination of industry effective practices in research collaboration with universities would be helpful. These exercises could also explore whether there are areas in which pursuit of proprietary rights is counterproductive for all concerned.
  • Including bioentrepreneurship education and training as part of biomedical graduate programs
  • Promotion and tenure credit for the scholarship of entrepreneurship
  • Seed stage funding mechanisms to “buy out” clinical faculty time to pursue entrepreneurship
  • Eliminating internal rules, regulation and policies that are anti-entrepreneurial
  • Recruiting, developing and promoting faculty for innovation

Fundamentally, universities are from Venus and industry is from Mars. If the two planets are ever to be in synchronous orbit, it will take changing some rules of physics or doing a much better job of reconciling the differences in cultures, leadership, strategies and incentives.

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Arlen MyersArlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs at www.sopenet.org

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