May 10, 2008

Universities and open innovation

Last month, UC Santa Cruz held a seminar at the NASA Ames Research Center entitled “Managing Industry-University Partnerships in Silicon Valley”.

I rushed home from a trade show in Las Vegas to be able to hear the seminar. Firms sourcing innovations from universities is certainly open innovation, and it’s something I’m interested in studying someday in a future paper.

The panel included representatives from HP, Genentech and two from UCSC. The first speaker was Lou Witkin of the new HP Labs Open Innovation Office, who moved over after 15 years in HP Lab’s University Relations office. (It was nice to hear that Lou had heard of the book and of course had already met with Henry Chesbrough.) The other speaker was Anna Williamson, a biz dev manager for Genentech who formerly sat on the other side of the table at UC Berkeley.

The two veterans gave a good sense of both why firms get involved with universities and how to make it work. Slides were not available and I was not allowed to tape the event, but I was able to take some notes.

Witkin, in particular, offered a number of specific pointers as to both the motivations and mechanics of making university-industry relations work. One of the most interesting slides was on “The Partnership Continuum”, which mapped a transition of university-industry engagement from career fairs up to sponsored research and major donations. (This slide and some other material also appeared in a January 2008 talk by Wayne Johnson, then VP of HP’s University Relations).

Universities are part of a larger economic ecosystem, which works best if the partnerships are open, collaborative and organized around win-win principles. While American universities are often admired by their European counterparts for strong industrial relations, Witkin said such collaboration is quite common in other countries (such as Brazil and China) where government is more cooperative with industry. He cited John Kao’s book Innovation Nation as a good source for information on how other countries are doing.

Both Wiktin and Williamson emphasized the importance of establishing long-term relationships that span specific projects. Longer-term master agreements reduce the transaction costs that can cause negotiations to take months or even years. Implicit within their comments is that sometimes it can be difficult to negotiate an agreement with major universities.

In fact, universities are creating increasing pressure to view technology transfer not as a way to help business and society, but primarily to capture revenues for the university. In talking with leading academics in the technology management field last week, it was clear that I’m not alone in worrying that the pendulum has swung too far. Talk is that some large firms have shifted from the US and Europe to Russia and other less developed countries, where the negotiations are quicker and less contentious.

Williamson talked about the business reasons why Genentech wants a fairly open hand with known terms in pursuing business opportunities based on licensed technology. Then, with her former University of California hat on, she noted that universities are reluctant to grant such unrestricted licenses for fear that the partner will tie up the technology and not follow through.

Witkin referred to an article on his work with UC Berkeley in improving licensing negotiations, co-authored with Beth Burnside, vice chancellor of research for UC Berkeley. The article, “Forging Successful University-Industry Collaborations,” appeared in the March-April 2008 issue of Research-Technology Management. Another party interested in improving this process is BASIC (Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium), which has published a series of reports on improving industry-university collaboration and specific contributions local research universities can make to industry.

UCSC sponsored the event as part of its ongoing campaign to build friends for its hoped-for business school here. Plans call for the school to be located in the proposed 70 acre NASA Research Park, which would include Carnegie Mellon, Santa Clara, De Anza College and perhaps SJSU. The incredibly valuable land — at the intersection of three freeways and only a couple of miles from Google, Yahoo, Cisco and other tech companies — will someday be reused after the 1994 closure of the Navy’s Moffett Field dirigible base (later ASW base).

UCSC’s plans are ambitious and optimistic, at least if the long tribulations faced in creating the UCSD business school are any indication. But it seems better than even money that some time in the next decade, UCSC will be offering degree-granting business courses at this prime NASA site.

1 comment:

John Gardner said...


We expect the industry side of the industry/univeristy interface to be dynamic. Not so with the univeristy. Could you point me to anyone utilizing lessons learned in open innovation that could apply to creating a new kind(s) of university organizational structures?

Appreciate your blog,

John Gardner