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Technology breakthroughs often have early beginnings in academia.  Take for example Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who founded the electronics business that is now Keysight Technologies. It was during Hewlett’s master’s project at Stanford University that he developed the innovative technology for the audio oscillator, Hewlett-Packard’s first successful commercial instrumentation.


What makes some partnerships, specifically those with academia, effective and others not?



Based on my experience facilitating hundreds of such partnerships over the years, I repeatedly come back to the following four best practices for maximizing successful corporate collaboration:


  1. Cast a wide net for ideas.  Involve your entire R&D team to brainstorm and source ideas for projects, professors, and universities with the leading-edge expertise your company needs.  This is invaluable for seeking out potential university research that might be relevant to your company and something in which you have people interested in investing.  This could be putting a call out to the broad R&D community soliciting proposals and ideas to generate possible partnerships to investigate that align to corporate interests.
  2. Align goals. Expect to have a lot of conversations before you find a good fit with an institution or a professor.  It may be an iterative process to create alignment between the corporate researcher and the academic researcher.
  3. Consider only those opportunities that have an owner and advocate.  Making sure there is someone back in your business that will drive and lead the relationship with the academic institution ensures continued relevancy and progress toward mutual success.  It will naturally limit which ideas make it over the threshold for investment.   Take for example, Keysight engineer Bernd Nebendahl who was pivotal in manifesting an industry academia partnership resulting in a new communications modulation scheme. The impetus for this research collaboration came from industry concerns about the “capacity crunch” in worldwide data traffic and the need for next generation optical communication tools.
  4. Enable face-face engagement. Preferably, match up your key contact to an institution that is close enough in geographic proximity to have regular face-to-face interactions.  Even though ‘virtual’ is becoming increasingly common, there is nothing as valuable as face-to-face interactions.   In one research collaboration between Keysight Labs in Santa Clara, CA and neighboring Stanford University, the close proximity facilitated the frequent visits and the easy exchange of equipment necessary for the experimental setups and data analysis methods for measuring parameters of interest.


Companies that engage universities get access to research in areas they may not be able to fund for themselves, not to mention in areas that the fast-paced, results-oriented business world doesn’t have the patience to nurture.  They may also get access to specialized infrastructure or capabilities (such as test bed environments for experimental research).   Another often-overlooked benefit is that company employees involved in the collaboration are able to deepen or broaden their knowledge without the impracticalities of long sabbaticals to go back to school.


For academic institutions, partnering with an industry leader provides in-depth, current, end-user insight they may not have access to otherwise.  If the relationship is set up well, institutions get access to industry-savvy people who lend a practical bent to their research.  The collaboration may also add credibility to grant proposals, provide additional funding, or furnish them with equipment they may not otherwise afford.


As we look ahead, it won’t be too long before the next waves of technology arrive in our lives: whether they are for devices that control our homes, drive our vehicles, or make us even more connected.   Corporate collaboration, in Keysight’s case, test and measurement in education, are driving faster and more relevant technological advances.


Where have you participated in an industry academia partnership to stimulate innovation?  Do you have additional best practices to share?


Kent Carey is the Director of University Relations and Research Services at Keysight Technologies.

During our annual spring-cleaning, my wife commented that we have not made any upgrades to our home since we bought it nearly ten years ago. I mentioned that we had the exterior painted, had the driveway sealed, replaced appliances, and got new floor coverings. Those count, right? Sure, she said, but those are maintenance items. She’s ready to renovate: New kitchen, new bathroom, new fixtures, new floors. She was looking at our house through a 10- to 20-year lens, and making a long-term investment in a house we like and a neighborhood we love. I was looking just a few years out, thinking wshutterstock_417005893.jpge might downsize to a new home in two or three years when we’re empty nesters. Both are valid points of view whether you’re talking about renovating a home or a test environment.


At work the following day, I was discussing options with my team for dealing with aging test stands and test equipment that was approaching obsolescence. Should we spend our budget extending the life of the current technology, migrate incrementally to newer technology, or start from scratch with a fully modern test floor? Each strategy is viable, each has its pros and cons, but like the home discussion I had with my wife, there are considerations that go beyond purchase price.


Short view? Extend.

How long do you need to use the equipment you have? If you just need two or three more years out of it, then extending the life of your equipment is the easiest way to go. You just need to keep the equipment running—there’s no need to research new technology, write new software, or re-validate and requalify measurements. There are drawbacks, of course. As I mentioned in a previous post , it gets harder to find replacement parts for older equipment, downtime tends to increase, and the speed and accuracy of older equipment tends to lag behind newer equipment. Some companies use what I call the “eBay strategy” to cope: they stockpile older instruments for spare parts. It can work for a few years, but after that, the test systems and stockpiles often return to eBay.


Long view?  Modernize.

New technology is faster, more accurate, and can revitalize your test program with more capability, more features, and equipment that’s covered under warranty. It comes at a cost, though, and not just hardware. You’ll also need to address software, measurement verification, racking and stacking, training, code compatibility (if needed), and new processes on the test floor. Modernization works great when there is an inflection point in the technology you need to test on your product. It’s also a compelling strategy if there’s a breakthrough in test technology that will make you more competitive, or if you have long-term production needs that require an upgrade in throughput or capacity. Like renovating a house, modernization can be daunting. But many times I’ve seen companies achieve a 100 percent return on investment in as little as six months, and the competitive advantages can be dramatic.


Mid-range view? Migrate.

With an incremental migration, you replace only the underperforming assets—the oldest, slowest, least accurate, or least reliable instruments. This allows you to minimize hardware and software changes, and incrementally increase reliability, reduce test time, increase accuracy, and minimize downtime. You’ll have some capital costs for new equipment, and you may have to address code compatibility, requalify some of your products, and continue to deal with occasional unplanned downtime. But for production lines that need to keep running without interruption for four to ten years or more—typical of the aerospace and defense industry, for example—this can be a good strategy.


There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to building the right test environment, but there is a common set of questions that should be asked. How well is your current environment working? How long do you need it to work? What are your competitors doing? What products are coming? What do your budgets look like today versus next year? What’s your total cost for testing your products? How much could you improve test results by replacing one, two, or three instruments? The key is to look at your test investment from all angles, move forward with a plan, and be willing to re-evaluate as conditions change.


Duane Lowenstein is a Test Strategy Analysis Manager for Keysight Technologies.