The Academia-Industry Interface

Academia scales down problems to make them rigorously tractable for the methods being researched. Industry scales up the methods, often sacrificing rigor, to assure results are applicable to real problems. While these may seem like mutually exclusive strategies, that need not be the case.

What are needed are intermediaries who understand both sides of the value proposition. Faculty members are looking to advance their careers, with criteria that industry would only marginally appreciate. Industry is looking to provide valued solutions in the real marketplace, which promotion and tenure committees completely ignore.  As disparate as they seem, these values need not be in conflict.

A common mechanism for bridging this difference is university research centers.  One could reasonably argue that strong exemplars of this are the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech Research Institute at Georgia Tech, Lincoln Laboratory at MIT and Systems Engineering Research Center at Stevens Institute. The International Center for Automotive Research at Clemson University and the Tauber Institute for Global Operations at the University of Michigan are good examples of industry-focused centers.

These organizations bring together important market and societal problems and opportunities for possibly novel intellectual solutions. Getting the right people talking to each other is key, but so are technology transition mechanisms that assure that all the stakeholders in the transition benefit from the success.

What gets in the way? One hurdle is the academic reward system. “Ok, you cured cancer but was your article published in Nature or Science, and did your funding come from NIH or NSF?”

On the industry side, “How will this technology affect this quarter’s earnings?  Beyond that, if this is such a good idea, why didn’t we already have it?”  Not invented here often dominates.

Intermediary organizations have to be matchmakers; both understanding what feathers might be ruffled and incentive and reward systems that can overcome such ruffling.  Strong leaders can do this, but it also has to permeate the culture of the intermediary organization.

There is a final key ingredient. Both the academic and industry sides of this potential collaboration have to agree that they want it to happen. This idea cannot succeed in an atmosphere of adversarial relationships. Everyone should want collaboration to succeed.


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