Now I know that some corporate partners have a very mature academic liaison program and a whole office full of people who work on technology transfer and research collaborations. But what if you’re brokering a research collaboration with a company like mine: one that cares a lot about research collaborations, but is just starting to get a process in place for knowledge exchange? It’s not a Boeing or a GSK or a Unilever with its own large department of R&D professionals. It’s a big company sure, but the R&D is spread out all across more than 12 departments all with their own, well, unique, approach to academic collaborations.
When you’re working with an industry partner, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Endless delays
- Being referred to different people, eventually ending up in a dead-end (return to point 1)
- An enthusiastic thumbs-up from someone, only then to find that they need further internal approval (return to point 1)
- A rash of questions, followed by a 75 page contract you receive just when your own entire legal team is going on vacation (return to point 1)
- Complete loss of enthusiasm for project
So we’re not going to do that, right?
What I’m doing behind the scenes, before we start a research collaboration
I’m getting internal agreement. The company I work in is big. Something like 7,500 employees. And it’s complex, with dozens of different business units, fiefdoms and exceptions. Sort of like…a university. But over the last year, we’ve identified (pretty much) the areas where we want to do research, the internal approval process, and the agreed non-negotiables. This includes internal agreement on things like how much data we’d give away, what kind of IP structure is acceptable, what kind of non-compete clauses we can live with.
- I know upfront on what information is needed. Because we’ve agreed what the company considers opportunities and risks, I’ve been able to collect up-front the kind of information we need to know from a partner. It’s probably the same as your own list, and it keeps me from having to go back to people multiple times to get more information
- I have template contracts for the easy stuff. We have agreed templates for everything from proposals to contracts. That means for some things, like our evaluation partners, we can offer a simple, light-touch agreement that is often something everyone can live with. These are quick and easy (in fact we agreed 16 of them last year alone).
- I have agreed alternatives. There are non-negotiables, there are easy yes-points and there are all the things in between. For most of the tricky collaborations, we’ve agreed internally the preferred position and the various alternatives that the company could live with if the other benefits were interesting enough. And with a company this complex, oh yes it saves time.
Why do I bother? Because everything I do to create an internal efficiency will help in the next negotiation. And cutting out avoidable delays is a great feeling.
What YOU can do before we start a collaboration project
Be there. In all my negotiations, I have only a handful of times had someone from the KE/TTO office at the table. Where are you? Most of the research agreements I’ve done are with the researcher themselves and the legal team. It would be oh-so-much more easy if you were there. I love your researchers, and I love your legal team, but they are generally on totally different ends of the spectrum.
- Have your own pre-discussed non-negotiables and agreed alternatives. You have them. Or if you don’t you should. Because I’m sure you’ve been through the soul-sucking cycle of “we’ll have to discuss this internally” which can go around for months or years. Yes of course internal discussions are needed when something unexpected comes up. But sometimes, the internal discussion cycle comes from having to escalate questions, where we really should have an internally-agreed framework.
- Know where I’m coming from. Did I mention Getting to Yes? Universities and companies of course have a lot of differences in what they’re looking to accomplish. But companies differ from each other more than universities do. Though probably we’re all looking to minimize risk, maximize ROI and stay out of trouble. But the details will differ a lot.
Why should you bother? Well for the same reason as me: it’s a lot more efficient. And while I know we’ll like working together, let’s try to spend our years together on dozens of different projects instead of hammering back and forth on the same one…