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Collaboration between universities and organisations

In this video, Dr Tim Hammond explains his perspective on the nature of collaboration between organisations and universities.
I think if you’re looking at the benefits from a university perspective, really working closely with an industrial partner really opens up the opportunities to develop the impact of our research, so how we can develop the economic or societal benefits from the core work that we’re doing as a university. I think from a company perspective, it opens up opportunities for us to share best practise in an academic area. It allows companies to maybe access a whole range of disciplines that would not normally be present within the company. So a company may employ many physicists or chemists. Well, it allows us to bring a much broader range of disciplines to work against a particular problem.
We also have a very broad range of facilities, which perhaps companies don’t always have access to, which again can be leveraged against the particular problem that’s being dealt with. I think the universities benefit from an industrial way of working, so understanding different ways of working against problems. And certainly, some of the project management skills that companies can bring to assist us in developing our ways of working on core scientific problems can also be benefited through that sort of interaction.
It’s very much about working as a team, and very much about how we can co-develop the project and work together to address the questions and the pieces of work that are needed to engage with the particular problem that we’re trying to deal with. Clearly, our industrial partners will hold very large data sets, which can be massively beneficial to the university in terms of not having to regenerate that data itself and using that data to answer core problems or questions which both the university and the industrial partner will have as well, so that’s also very important.
I think being able to work together and put our own resources into projects is very important, but also our ability to demonstrate the broader validity of what we might be doing to society is a benefit. And certainly when it comes to government funding of research, government is very much looking for how universities and companies can work together to solve broader problems which maybe go beyond a particular company’s interest. And I think open innovation is a very good way of doing that, where you can bring together non-competitive companies to actually work on a particular problem set.
And certainly that’s been an area that my university and our industrial partners have worked very successfully in order to get solutions which don’t just solve one set of industrial problems. The last area is really around risk reduction. And when a company is looking at its portfolio of products, these days they tend to have to be relatively narrow-focused. They talk about funnels and the funnel getting narrower. So by working together with a university partner, we’re able to broaden that funnel of activity so we can go into the more speculative areas that have a much greater chance of success of taking perhaps platform technologies forward, which possibly couldn’t be taken forward in a normal way.
I think the example that Durham is best known for is really our strategic partnership with Procter & Gamble, which is very much an open innovation collaboration. As people are no doubt aware, Procter & Gamble is an $80 billion turnover fast-moving consumer goods company, which is well known for its open innovation practises. Durham has multiple projects with the company in areas which range from materials science to chemistry, through physics, maths, engineering, psychology, and even working with the business school in this particular area. And through that relationship, we have over 100 members of staff and students who actually have been involved in collaborative work with P&G, so it’s a very substantive collaboration.
And really as a consequence of that, there are actually products on the shelf that have resulted from our interaction with the company. I’ll give two specific examples. One is the world’s smallest washing machine, where our physicists have closely with the company to develop a means of assessing the performance of products under a microscope, which has allowed the company to develop products which are superior in terms of performance. And actually it’s intellectual property that’s now sitting in products that are on the shelf which have come from that work. Another piece of work is around dishwashing and really improving the shine of the products that are coming out of the dishwashing processes.
And again, our academics have helped develop methods to assess how products are performing then done work on the chemistry of the materials which have then gone into the dishwashing components, and again patents are coming out of that area as well.
I think that how companies can work in this way does to some extent depend on their experience. Clearly, companies that are starting to work in this way maybe take some time to really sort of adopt the principles, but that certainly when companies have become very experienced, then it works very, very well. I think key to it is very much the openness and trust that is really on all sides within the innovation partnership. If you don’t disclose the real nature of the problem, it’s very difficult to actually work and provide the solutions. And we’ve had direct experience where companies perhaps– where they’re relatively recently engaging in open innovation, where perhaps they’ve only given part of the problem set.
And often you only get part of the solution through that interaction. I think it is relatively simple to describe problems which don’t always give away the core intellectual property. I think companies as they gain experience in those areas can work much more successfully in that area. So disclosure I think is a very important way of actually sort of capturing the problem and actually dealing with the solutions with the partners that you’re working with.
I think understanding the common objectives of the partners is very important in terms of getting it right at the outset. And I think within that is really looking at how the results might then be used, whether it’s from a university perspective or whether it’s from a company perspective, so really getting in place a strategy to maybe publish if it’s a university or if it’s a company, the strategy to manage the intellectual property that might be coming from the piece of work.
And I think in terms of actually how that should then be defined, it’s really sort of then starts to break down into a series of subsets really around areas of exploitation, which recognise where the company wishes to work, and where the university may also wish to exploit the ideas that are coming out of the research areas and the sort of commercial benefits that might accrue to both parties. The issue of confidentiality, but also recognising the drivers that universities have generally to publish or in the case of PhD students to actually produce a thesis is also part of what needs to be pulled together as part of that relationship.
I think getting that right and getting that in place perhaps in terms of a master agreement at the beginning of the relationship certainly makes it much easier to take new ideas forward as the relationship develops. Certainly that’s something we’ve worked very hard to do with our strategic partners. I think the other area to really start to consider is also the area of risk. And if everything is going to be plain sailing, that’ll be fine.
But actually strategic partnerships work well that have that willingness to take a calculated risk from time to time, taking into account that we are going to be successful in most areas, so that ability just to once in a while look at the areas which are perhaps a little bit off-piste and in those areas there can be some significant benefits by just trying something and looking at how that might work.

The sources of ideas and knowledge that an organisation can learn from vary. Here Dr Tim Hammond, Director of Commercialisation and Economic Development at Durham University, talks about his own experiences of open innovation. Dr Hammond has led teams within the University that have engaged in open innovation activities with a broad range of partnerships – including multinationals, smaller firms, and public sector organisations. In this video he spends some time discussing the successful partnership with Procter and Gamble.

Dr Hammond explains his angle on the nature of collaboration between organisations and universities. He discusses the ‘win-win’ nature of successful partnerships. From the University side Dr Hammond discusses how this may lead access to company data, greater understanding of how industry works, bringing different perspectives to core scientific problems, and providing resources for further research projects. From the external partner side he explains how working with universities can offer access to experts in a multiple fields and to a range of research facilities and equipment which may not easily be accessible otherwise.

He emphasises that mutual understanding is key and that each party needs to know how the output of the collaboration will be used. He also explains that the relationships between both parties have to be right with multi-points of contact, ie not dependent on one or two individuals from each side.


Thinking about this video, consider the following questions:

  • What thoughts have you had about the different kinds of partnerships that might support your own organisation’s growth?
  • Do you think universities or other research centres could be potential partners? What could you offer in return?
  • Has it made you think differently about how you might go about working in partnerships?

Please add your thoughts around this to the discussion.

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Harnessing Open Innovation in Business

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