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Teaming Up

A Research Partnership Done Right Solves Technical Problems and Grows Business

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Even industrial R&D giants are finding they often lack all the necessary expertise in-house and are reaching out to suppliers, customers, universities, and government laboratories to establish partnerships in order to give them access to expertise and equipment they need to develop innovative new products and processes. While the number and often size of these research partnerships have grown greatly, they are actually not new. For example, in the 1980s when I joined Shell Oil, I was fascinated  by coworkers’ use of computerized tomography (CAT scanning) to study fluid movement in permeable media (rock). The researchers would go to a hospital very late at night, insert their high-pressure test apparatus in a scanner, and monitor fluid behavior as aqueous fluids were injected into oil-bearing rock. The objective was to learn how to control fluid movement so the aqueous fluid penetrated a larger fraction of the rock, thereby recovering more oil.

Research consortia

Professors and even entire university departments sometimes establish research consortia: partnerships with industrial and government laboratories. Their objective is to fund university research studies of common interest to faculty members and industrial firms. Consortia exist in many fields of science, engineering, medicine, and other disciplines. Consortia offer a way for multiple companies—and sometimes government agencies as well—to work together on projects. The academic consortium members take the lead in defining R&D projects and goals. However, by obtaining input from the industrial members of the consortia, university faculty
members can better target their research to provide financially useful results.

The research is funded by the consortium members. In return for providing funding they receive periodic updates on research findings. As they discuss the results with the academic members of the consortium, the companies have opportunities to influence the direction of the research and incorporate the findings into their own R&D programs.

Academic freedom is an important consideration. While the industrial members of the consortium do learn of the R&D findings, they are later presented at conferences and published in research journals so other organizations can learn of the results and possibly build on the researchers’ findings.

Another advantage of the research consortium is that graduate students and postdoctoral researchers can learn about the industrial research process. Because the industrial researchers know them, these students and postdocs often have an advantage in obtaining jobs with industrial members of the consortium.

I have been fortunate in participating in several research consortia and academic-industrial research partnerships. My experience has been that the interactions between consortia members produce R&D results whose value substantially exceeds the cost of consortium membership. For example, while working for Shell Chemical Company my employer was a member of the Cooperative Recycle Fiber Studies Program, a consortium focused on paper recycling R&D in the University of Maine Department of Chemical Engineering and led by Professor Edward Thompson. Of the seven industry consortium members, I represented the only chemical company consortium member and was considered the chemistry expert. The other consortium members were representatives of paper companies operating paper recycling mills and companies that produced process equipment used in these mills. My participation in the consortium gave my employer considerable credibility with these paper companies, helping to ensure that our chemical products were considered for use in their mills.

Cartoon HandshakeUsing the Internet for confidential communications

Email and social media can be used to promote communication
and sustain research partnerships. Laboratorymanagers once had assistants to do this work. Now many managers have to do it themselves. While email can be helpful in doing this, negotiation of meeting time and location can require a series of tedious, timeconsuming exchanges of emails. Online software such as Microsoft Outlook and SurveyMonkey® enables meeting participants to share calendars and arrange acceptable meeting times while minimizing the time required to do so.

Once scheduled, these meetings may be held in person or be teleconferences or videoconferences. Online meetings may be held using software such as GotoMeeting® or WebEx™.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter enable scientists around the world to share their findings and opinions. Distance is no barrier to communicating their research results quickly and efficiently. However, social media raises issues for industrial researchers due to the proprietary nature of their work. They are more likely to use social media that are part of their firms’ intranets in order to bar access to confidential findings by outsiders.

Given these considerations, it is more often academic scientists who are likely to use the Internet to advance their research. One basic requirement for research is funding. Crowd funding is a fundraising method by which people come together to provide funds for a particular research program. The cumulative effect of individuals pooling their funds can be a substantial sum that makes serious research possible. Some websites that enable crowd funding are,, and

One can also go one step further and actively involve members of the public in the research itself. Social media have been used to establish research partnerships between citizen scientists and research institutions in biology, astronomy, and other fields. Groups with interests as varied as conducting bird censuses or detecting and studying comets can set up group pages to request assistance and allow citizen scientists to report their observations.

Besides tweeting, an increasing number of academic scientists are using blogs to discuss their work. These can become vehicles for conversations with other scientists—both academic and industrial.

Geographic proximity

Even in these days of email, social media, and online meetings, geographic proximity can be a strong promoter of innovation. Companies located in close proximity to suppliers, customers, and other companies with technologies they would like to access can realize synergies from this proximity when undertaking joint R&D projects. Increased face-to-face contact often increases communication quality, promoting innovation. Other benefits include reduced travel time and costs for meetings with research collaborators.

These geographic groupings are called Porter clusters because it was Harvard University business professor Michael Porter who popularized the concept in his book “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” and determined many of the advantages of this geographic proximity, even in these days of high-speed electronic communication.1 Examples include the oil industry in Houston; petrochemical companies on the U.S. Gulf Coast between Houston and New Orleans; the many biotechnology companies located in the greater Boston area, San Francisco, and San Diego; and the numerous pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia, northern New Jersey, the Boston area, and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

What are these advantages, and how do they occur? It was economist Alfred Marshall, author of the influential 1890 book “Principles of Economics,” who offered three major explanations.2 The first is “input sharing.” In volatile knowledge-intensive activities, several firms often cooperate to make something. This phenomenon is called vertical disintegration. Vertical disintegration enables firms to reduce the risk of needing some specialized input. Firms in a Porter cluster often have access to more input sharing, thus reducing its purchased input costs. This may occur through direct company interactions or interactions occurring through local sections of science and professional engineering organizations.

Marshall’s second explanation is “labor market pooling.” Clusters can offer better matches between employees and firms. When employees quit or are laid off, it is
easier for a worker to find a new position and for firms to fill vacant positions when an
industry and the skills it requires are concentrated geographically in a Porter cluster.

The third explanation is “knowledge spillover.” Marshall wrote, “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries, but are as it were in the air …”2 Provided that knowledge spillover does not become fossilized into rigid, unoriginal groupthink, knowledge spillover can lead to formal and informal partnerships that result in knowledge creation, knowledge spillover, and economic growth for companies and the cluster as a whole. Knowledge spillover depends heavily on the amount and type of knowledge produced locally—hence, research universities are important in the mix of organizations and laboratories constituting the cluster.

Local professional networks, fostered in part by local professional organizations, can act as knowledge brokers, increasing knowledge spillover. One can meet potential R&D partners at meetings of local sections of professional societies such as the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and Society of Petroleum Engineers. These organizations can promote interactions between researchers at different companies through their local activities.

Intellectual property concerns

Technology licensing is facilitated when the organization selling the technology works with the buyer to be sure all relevant information is transferred. Sometimes the seller will also sell specialized lab equipment and have discussions with the buyer to facilitate commercialization of the licensed technology.

Open innovation and open innovation providers3 offer vehicles for technology discovery and licensing. “Problems in one discipline have often already been solved in another,” observes Bernard Munos, an adviser in corporate strategy at Eli Lilly & Company. “Cross-pollinating various styles of thought, problem-solving approaches, and training is a powerful driver of breakthrough innovation.” Open innovation facilitators such as provide a Web-based method for bringing technology buyers and sellers together so that all parties maximize the return on their intellectual assets.

Some organizations have established websites to promote licensing of their technology. For example, the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) maintains a Technology Partnerships Office and a section of its website for technology partnering activities between NIST laboratories and industry.

Intellectual property disputes can arise during scientific collaborations. Thus, these collaborations and the obligations and rights of each party need to be specified in contracts. For example, the patent rights of industrial members of a scientific consortium need to be specified.

Diversity as a collaboration issue

The different nature of the institutions involved in a research partnership can result in problems in institutions working together and can lead to failure of the partnership. This is a diversity problem. Leaders and members of the collaboration must realize that cultural differences exist between research partners: companies, universities, and government laboratories. Challenging cultural differences, even between companies in the same industry, can create challenges to effective collaborations. Multinational companies sometimes find that cultural differences between their laboratories located in different countries can create barriers to establishing effective research partnerships. In addition, cultural differences can exist between and within disciplines. Sensitivity to these cultural differences is required for effective scientific partnerships.


Whether your innovation partners are located across town or across the globe, they can provide a means for laboratory managers to solve their technical problems and grow their firms’ businesses. Every laboratory manager and laboratory employee should be on the alert for interesting technology that can be relevant to current projects in the lab. Current awareness services, provided by your library, your IT department, or an outside provider, can be essential to keeping you aware of when technology solutions to your lab’s problems are published or patented.


1. J.K. Borchardt, “Open Innovation: Presenting New Opportunities for Contract
Managers,” Contract Management, www. 35.pdf, (January 31, 2008).

2. Alfred Marshall, “Principles of Economics,” Eighth Edition (1924).

3. J.K. Borchardt, “Open Innovation Becoming Key to R&D Success,” Laboratory Manager, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, No/3135/.

Dr. John K. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. He is the author of Career Management for Scientists and Engineers and often writes on career-related subjects. He can be reached at