Industry and academia: Not-so-strange bedfellows in effective innovation
With corporate R&D activities declining as costs rise, industry has turned a hungry eye to the university arena to help keep the innovation pipeline open and relevant. Academic institutions, long a productive fount of scientific research, are playing an increasingly important role in tech transfer. And the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) is key to that process, in the view of tech transfer leaders from both the business and academic worlds.
Chris Yochim, who recently retired from a 35-year career with global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca—with two decades of it focused on technology transfer—says, “Right now, as a whole, industry is looking more toward academia as a source of innovative science to augment their own internal activities. It’s just how R&D has evolved.”
As companies have consolidated and reduced their research footprints, Yochim says, their appreciation for innovation at universities has increased.
“It’s not so much that companies have cut their research spending,” he stipulates. “Rather, they have shifted how they spend their money.
“Increasingly, that money is being spent on various kinds of significant strategic collaboration with academia. These tend to be large projects with multiple goals aimed at validating novel disease targets and translational science initiatives—as opposed to one research scientist and one industry scientist working together on a single effort.”
“The results impacted our strategy in the disease area, as well as provided novel leads for innovative therapeutics,” Yochim says.
Concurrently, top universities are focusing on research and tech transfer as a key to economic development.
“Increasingly, universities are playing a role in spinouts and helping build companies that they hope will ultimately be profitable and employ hundreds of people,” says Yochim. “That is becoming mission-critical for the top-tier institutions. They see that they do have a role in their state’s or region’s economic development.
“This is the life blood, the reason why the biopharmaceutical industry in this country is so strong,” he says. “It is the mandate of the Bayh-Dole Act that any institution receiving National Institutes of Health funding is supposed to make a good-faith effort to commercialize any intellectual property generated from that funding.”
Yochim says AUTM is successful at fostering academic/industry relationships because it is seen as “neutral turf” and a place to “come together to identify more productive ways of collaborating and sharing best practices so we don’t get bogged down with the miscellaneous details around contract negotiations and licensing agreements.”
“It is undeniable that innovation starts in academia,” says Murphy. “Industry would not be what it is without academia,” she adds, lauding Bayh-Dole as “a ‘miraculous’ law and what has fueled the U.S. as a biotech hub.
“Tech transfer is how academic inventions make it out into the world. You can’t overestimate the role of certain discoveries and the technology and science that are happening in academia. It’s not that we aren’t doing innovation in industry as well. We certainly are. But we learn and piggyback on work that is being done in academia.”
Murphy also has praise for AUTM and its work fostering technology transfer.
“If inventions don’t have any way to get into the outside world, they won’t fully blossom. That doesn’t happen automatically. It takes professionals executing their timely and efficient transfer to industry.
“AUTM makes sure these pros are connected, well trained and rigorous as they possibly can be,” she says. “Thirty-five years ago, it was all nascent. AUTM played a huge role in creating the industry and making sure it was an efficient and effective mechanism to transfer the technology.”
“I’ve benefitted greatly from industry-university interaction,” Bhakuni says. “At Alcoa, it was a lot like working at a university because we focused on publications and research. There were quite a lot of ‘blue sky’ projects.”
The Alcoa R&D center still exists, but it has shrunk significantly. “When I was working at Alcoa in 1989, there were 1,500 people doing R&D. During my time there, it went down to 500. And the blue sky research, where you can really explore, really kind of went away. The research was directed more towards the business units, and you had to have a business unit sponsor, so the long-range research wasn’t taking place.”
That has made academic labs even more important, Bhakuni says. “Industry needs disruptive technology and really expert technical people, which can come from universities or other entities. There is also a great need for—look at Detroit—technically trained engineers. So there is a match in both those areas. It is up to us at universities to say that we are the place to get it. For example, researchers at Rice University have invented things like nanotubes and are making the world a better place.”
Bhakuni says AUTM is key to her role at Rice. “You can become so entrenched in your university,” she says. “It’s important to be able to talk about issues and benchmark what others are doing and see how problems are solved. It’s amazing how many solutions you can come up with when you work together.”