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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.