Developing Successful Strategic Partnerships With Universities

For many companies, universities have become essential innovation partners. However, companies often struggle to establish and run university partnerships effectively.

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Collaborations between companies and universities are critical drivers of the innovation economy. These relationships have long been a mainstay of corporate research and development (R&D) — from creating the knowledge foundations for the next generation of solutions, to serving as an extended “workbench” to solve short-term, incremental problems, to providing a flow of newly minted talent. As many corporations look to open innovation to augment their internal R&D efforts, universities have become essential partners. Indeed, companies now look to universities to anchor an increasingly broad set of innovation activities, especially those grounded in engaging with regional innovation ecosystems. Silicon Valley, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Block 71 in Singapore are among the most visible innovation ecosystems where universities are essential stakeholders in an innovation community that also includes corporations, government entities, venture investors, and entrepreneurs. Thus, in addition to serving as sources of people and ideas for corporations, university collaborations are an important mechanism for corporations seeking to open up new avenues of engagement with a broader innovation ecosystem.

Following corporate giants like General Electric, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, and IBM, which have collaborated with universities for years, a variety of younger companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber are using universities as a key part of their early-stage innovation and new ventures strategy.1 Even smaller, more regionally oriented companies in diverse sectors such as mining and automotive have come to believe that universities are key ecosystem stakeholders in supporting and shaping their regional economies. For example, IQE plc, a compound semiconductor company based in Cardiff, U.K., supports a regional innovation ecosystem through its collaborative relationship with Cardiff University. The partners have developed a translational research facility to train scientists and technicians in compound semiconductor technologies and support an R&D facility to help U.K. businesses exploit advances in these technologies. Such collaborations between corporations and universities foster the innovation ecosystem.

While the aspirations of university-industry partnerships can be easily described, many companies find it challenging to establish and run these partnerships effectively, even when key financial resources and human capital are available. The challenge is amplified in an ecosystem where the various stakeholders, all with their own ambitions, need to be properly aligned to achieve impact. In our research, we have found that both corporations and universities confront a general level of frustration and a mismatch in culture and governance when they collaborate. (See “About the Research.”)

Although many factors contribute to the frustration, the core reason is that university culture — characterized by high autonomy and distributed governance — maps poorly to corporate culture. Universities offer companies a wide and at times bewildering array of faculty, programs, and other modes of engagement. Even when the formats for interaction are established, there is often a profound mismatch in the expectations and goals for joint engagement.

Given both the promise and the challenge of university-industry interactions today, it’s important to explore the factors that make such collaborations successful. We have found that a systematic approach to university partnerships within innovation ecosystems requires both companies and universities to be well prepared before the engagement even begins. In particular, companies need to move from an ad hoc to a strategic approach to partnerships with universities.

From Ad Hoc to Strategic Partnerships

In an ad hoc approach, university collaborations are first and foremost established by individual researchers or engineers in the company and focus on specific R&D needs identified by those individuals. This means that collaboration partners are likely chosen based on personal experience and the networks of the researchers and engineers in the company. The rationale for university partner selection is familiarity between individual researchers, not between the two organizations as a whole. Although this may mean that many potentially valuable aspects of a university partnership are ignored, such approaches create what has been described as an “extended workbench.”2 Such collaborations, though small, are often agile. From the perspective of the corporation, the university collaboration is limited to the specific project (typically within a business unit), and thus there is no centralized organization. From the university’s perspective, individual researchers and their students gain a source of funding, insight into relevant problems, and opportunities to access novel assets or partners.

Ad hoc approaches often lead to a large number of collaborations (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) with little synergy. Each agreement is negotiated individually, which tends to put a heavy workload on legal departments, leading to delays. In addition, opportunities for broader engagement and impact are lost. Consequently, large companies and many leading universities have shown interest in more strategic programs.

As companies enter into strategic agreements with universities, they have begun to organize their relationships with universities into tiers. “Top-tier” relationships are no longer simply based on personal connections between an academic and a corporate researcher. Increasingly, companies select universities based on their expertise in an area of strategic importance and their familiarity to the company. In fact, companies have started to use company-wide master research agreements to create transparency in their collaboration activities, improve their negotiating positions, accelerate the deployment of projects, and encourage interfaculty collaboration on topics of shared interest. Such approaches are reminiscent of relationships established back in the 1980s between Harvard Medical School and Hoechst A.G., Washington University and Monsanto, and MIT and Exxon; and the longstanding relationship between the University of Oxford and Rolls-Royce.3 More comprehensive agreements are particularly attractive to universities because they enable individuals from corporate labs to be embedded on-site at the university, provide a more stable source of funding, and allow for more multifaceted interactions.

The change from incremental problem-solving to shared strategic work on grand challenges or deep exploration is important because it signals that universities are places not just to establish an extended workbench to solve predefined problems but also to tackle more ambitious challenges that have a more open-ended, exploratory emphasis.4 Within corporations, the creation of strategic programs has led to the institutionalization of specialized units for university relations, often situated in the corporate R&D organization with reporting lines to senior management. Such units play a leading role in defining the focus areas for collaboration, designing formats, selecting partner universities, offering advice regarding intellectual property rights, evaluating collaborations, and continually managing the interactions between the company and the universities. Universities have made fewer organizational changes, but the development of specific corporate programs for engagement with particular research centers, departments, or initiatives has become more commonplace, and the number of licensing and contract professionals has grown.

As a next step in the evolution of university partnerships, strategic programs are now increasingly seen as the fulcrum for broader innovation ecosystem engagement (in part because large corporations are seeking external input throughout the innovation process, from initial idea to impact). Companies may link to the ecosystem via a range of local entities (for example, local governments, school systems, and startup communities). However, particularly when companies are working with universities actively engaged in startup creation and research translation, familiarity with the university and its collection of innovation activities can become a natural entry point for companies to develop broader links into the innovation ecosystem. The shift also aligns with the ways in which universities today are participating in local and regional economic development and playing a part on a global stage. Conversely, it would be difficult to imagine innovation ecosystem engagement taking place without a deep connection to the local university.

Moving from ad hoc to strategic to ecosystem partnerships places ever more demands on university-corporate interactions. On the corporate side, business units, global R&D, and venturing units all want seats at the table, with each party bringing its respective needs and values. On the university side, individual labs, centers and initiatives, and entrepreneurship programs all have an interest in the engagement. Our research is based on our interest in both understanding and learning how to optimize these naturally complex relationships. As part of that research, we have found that companies that work through six important questions are better positioned to develop an effective approach to interaction with a range of universities across different innovation ecosystems.

Preparing for Systematic Engagement With Universities

We recommend that companies consider these six fundamental questions:

  1. What business goals drive your university partnerships?
  2. What are the key focus areas of your university partnerships, and how are they selected to ensure alignment with your business goals?
  3. Who are your primary university partners, and by what criteria are they chosen?
  4. What collaboration formats match your focus areas and business goals?
  5. What people, processes, and organizational structures support your university partnerships?
  6. What key performance indicators are most useful for evaluating your university partnerships?

These questions are closely linked; when the answers are aligned, they provide a logic for engagement that is more strategic and, in our experience, more likely to be effective. The six questions can be divided into three groups. The first two are about the business goals — the strategic goals that university partnerships should deliver for the company. The next two questions emphasize the partners (who) and collaboration formats (how). Together, the first four questions form the core of a systematic approach to university partnerships. The remaining two questions are about ensuring that the right people, processes, organizational structures, and evaluation tools are in place so that the university and the company can ensure that the partnership is delivering value to both parties.

QUESTION 1: What business goals drive your university partnerships? Companies have various reasons for wanting to engage in university partnerships, and they often have difficulty articulating their goals in clear business terms. Working with companies with emerging best practices in this field, we found the business goals that drive university interactions can often be grouped into five categories:

Short-Term, Incremental Problem-Solving This often occurs within an existing product line and is, as already mentioned, sometimes referred to as an “extended workbench.”

Talent Identification and Hiring For many companies, talent acquisition at levels from undergraduates to Ph.D.s to postdocs is a primary business goal of partnerships with universities.

Long-Term Development of New Technologies These interactions are often referred to as “grand challenges” or “deep exploration,” and they involve companies seeking new technologies and solutions to broad-based customer needs that may lead to new product lines or new businesses.

Systematic Exposure to Startups For many companies, exposure to startups (either research- or student-driven) while the startups are still part of the university can be an important incentive for interacting with universities, often with the involvement of corporate venturing units. Although there is no agreed-upon term for this, we will refer to it as exposure to the “startup pipeline.”

Publicity and Political Influence A high-profile partnership with a prestigious university can lend luster to a company. In some regional innovation ecosystems, a partnership with a top research institution can provide access to high-level government officials.

Although each of these goals is distinct, they may be interrelated. For example, working collaboratively on grand challenges can serve as a pathway to talent identification and, at times, to a startup (to move a solution out of the lab and into the world). Likewise, short-term engagements focused on incremental problem-solving might drive the hiring of individuals with specific skills needed for the company’s R&D activities. Addressing this first question — something few companies do — creates an opportunity for a corporation to articulate a cohesive view of its business goals and how they relate to its university interactions.

QUESTION 2: What are the key focus areas of your university partnerships, and how are they selected to ensure alignment with your business goals? Within the business goals outlined, a company’s key focus areas for university partnerships must be specified in terms of particular innovation priorities. For a business goal such as talent identification, for example, the focus areas must be prioritized so that the “what” can be defined in terms of technical competence/capability (for example, bioprocess engineers); challenge areas (for example, new distributed power systems); or product domains (for example, more efficient turbine blades). To ensure that university collaborations are properly aligned with the company’s business goals, the selection process for such partnerships should be as rigorous as a comparable internal process would be.

For example, a large European automotive company has an innovation board comprising the heads of R&D, production, and marketing innovation — the three divisions most relevant to the business goals for university partnerships. The board makes decisions on which focus areas should be part of future projects with universities and monitors ongoing projects with partner universities. This process ensures that the focus areas of the current and future projects with universities are constantly aligned with the business goals that drive the university partnerships.

QUESTION 3: Who are your primary university partners, and by what criteria are they chosen? Selecting university partners is no easy task. However, many leading corporations are making their selection criteria more explicit — in ways that universities often welcome. The most common criteria include the following:

  • Familiarity and fit (previous joint projects, personal relationships, many hires);
  • Location (if proximity, to headquarters or to an innovation ecosystem, is desirable);
  • Excellence (the reputation of the university, top-journal publications of a lab, or involvement of a particular researcher);
  • Legal framework (especially regarding issues such as intellectual property rights and access to university-based startups); and
  • Culture (especially regarding entrepreneurial culture, openness to industry, and interdisciplinary collaboration).

Our research indicates that successful companies continually define and refine their university selection criteria as their experience grows and their goals change. One large U.S. corporation, for example, has developed an online tool that tracks the productivity and impact of its university partnerships. The tool helps its R&D group make informed decisions about whom to partner with and ensures that projects are aligned with business goals of the company.

QUESTION 4: What collaboration formats match your focus areas and business goals? Choosing the right collaboration format is at the heart of a successful university partnership. While traditional formats have mainly taken the form of companies sponsoring research in one or many projects, the variety of formats has been expanding in recent years. Among the formats we see today are contract research with a single lab, individual corporate employees embedded in a lab or research center, consortia membership, large co-created research centers, open calls for grant proposals in a particular research area, student/ corporate hackathons and idea contests, collaboration on publicly funded projects, fellowship programs, and jointly sponsored conferences and workshops. (See “A Variety of Industry-University Collaboration Formats.”)

More novel and ambitious formats include the Cisco-University of British Columbia relationship, which aims to turn the university campus into a living lab for smart building systems,5 and the Global Innovation Exchange, funded initially by Microsoft and established in collaboration with Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Washington in Seattle, which provides a compelling example of more complex but increasingly relevant multiparty, multicontinent relationships.6

Of course, the collaboration format a company chooses will depend on the goals it wishes to pursue. For companies prioritizing short-term, incremental problem-solving, contract research with a single lab may be the best way to seamlessly extend the workbench. If the goal is talent acquisition, student-oriented activities such as hackathons, competitions, and fellowships are highly effective in that they enable the company to get to know a large number of talented students and evaluate their fit. Embedding employees within the university is a particularly effective way to identify talent, particularly at the Ph.D. and postdoctoral level. To meet grand challenges, several formats are emerging as best practices: targeted but open calls for research proposals (perhaps preceded by a hackathon to raise awareness and excitement) and the co-creation of research centers.

The opportunity to engage with the startup pipeline has emerged as another attractive business goal for university partnerships. Here again, there are various potential formats, all geared toward identifying and connecting to startups or even project teams that have yet to formally incorporate (which we refer to as “proto-startups”). Many proto-startups are associated with innovation and entrepreneurship programs in universities and in the wider innovation ecosystem. We found in our research that successful companies draw a distinction between engaging with student-led startups (for example, via business plan competitions or student accelerators) and lab-based startups, where interaction typically includes consideration of intellectual property, engagement with faculty, and sharing of expertise around scale-up and testing, along with sponsored research.

Companies that have expansive goals need to actively manage a complex portfolio of relationships and formats. The university-relations unit at one large pharmaceutical company, for example, continually evaluates and prioritizes its collaboration formats based on the evolving business needs and phases in the drug development process. The company uses fellowship programs to fund Ph.D.s and postdoctoral researchers and provide opportunities to bring them into the organization, both to drive know-how about grand challenges and for talent acquisition.

Ultimately, successful partnering with universities isn’t about choosing a particular collaboration format but about systematically prioritizing and reprioritizing different formats in response to changing business goals. Beyond that, it is about having the right people, processes, and organizational support to ensure success and to identify and manage sources of tension. In our last two questions, we will examine these issues.

QUESTION 5: What people, processes, and organizational structures support your university partnerships? Corporations with partnerships across a range of universities must create internal structures and processes to drive success. This raises questions about what structures will enable effective interactions, what competencies university-relationship managers need, and what processes are best suited to support internal alignment between the technical expert level and the management level in the company and also between the company and the university.

In terms of structure, the shift from an ad hoc approach to a strategic approach has spawned specialized units for university relations. But what are the best organizational structures to support the partnerships? If it makes sense for companies to establish units for university relations, should they be part of a centralized R&D function or operate as part of more decentralized business units? Our findings show that strategic partnerships do not have to be supported by a centralized unit that reports to the chief technical officer (CTO) or a senior vice president. Rather, it’s important that the primary business goals (and the particular choice of who, where, and how) shape the choices. If the problems you are trying to solve have been defined at the business-unit level, then partnership support should take place within the business units themselves. If the goal is to undertake something larger (for example, a grand challenge), then it makes sense for the university-relations unit to be centralized and to report to a senior manager such as the CTO.7

Regardless of organizational setup, company employees who serve at the university-corporate interface must be capable of acting as knowledge brokers between university partners and the company. We suggest that companies designate two roles for each university partner: a management sponsor (usually a top manager such as a board member or country CEO), who is assigned to a specific university; and a university-relationship manager for R&D, who supports the sponsor within the company.

Based on our experience, it works well if the university likewise appoints people to mirror those two corporate roles (ideally, a vice president or dean and an industry-partnership manager). On the corporate side, the core team drives the processes that are covered by our six questions. Of course, when considering the portfolio of university partnerships, the top executives and key managers involved with the relationships need to take part in the conversations and have an overview of the company’s engagement in various innovation ecosystems. But as noted above, the overall reporting structure needs to reflect the goals of the relationships. Beyond the internal organizational decisions, the corporate team and its university counterparts should explicitly address our six questions and use them to build a shared understanding of success.

QUESTION 6: What key performance indicators are most useful for evaluating your university partnerships? Evaluation is a critical element of an effective university-industry engagement. But as with any essential activity, the metrics of success must be carefully defined to ensure that what’s measured and tracked is closely aligned with the business goals. Both the key performance indicators (KPIs) you choose and the evaluation process are fundamental to ongoing effectiveness.

Some of the most commonly used KPIs for university partnerships are cash investment, number of joint projects initiated per year, number of students hired, number of patents or licensing agreements, amount of public funding leveraged, effectiveness and efficiency of projects, number of faculty members and students involved in projects per year, number of ideas that turn into product development, and number of investments in startups. Our research suggests that successful companies tend to use a variety of KPIs (both quantitative and qualitative), and they define and redefine them periodically in terms of how they fit with the business goals and the collaboration formats.

  • If the goal is incremental problem-solving, then the KPIs should prioritize the effectiveness, timeliness, and efficiency of the researcher, group, or lab in delivering a solution.
  • For talent identification and hiring goals, the metrics might include number of applicants for key roles, successful hiring ratios, retention, and, over time, the hires’ performance within the corporation.
  • For grand challenges, the KPIs might include the number of proposals submitted, the diversity of the proposals, the number of faculty engaged, the extent to which external funding is leveraged, and, later, the effectiveness and breadth of the solutions developed.
  • For goals involving access to the startup pipeline, the KPIs might include the number of new startups coming out of the university in fields of interest to the company, and the number and amount of the company’s investments in such startups.
  • Finally, if the goal is publicity and political influence, then the number of high-level meetings, media mentions, and the level of satisfaction on the media relations team are among the relevant KPIs.

As we have outlined, working through the six questions can help companies develop a strategic perspective on their partnerships, thus setting up both companies and universities for more effective interactions and more successful ecosystem engagement. To implement the process, we have created a form we call the “university partnership canvas,”8 which allows executives to represent the six questions visually. (See “Assessing Partnerships With Universities.”)

The University Partnership Canvas

As we have noted, many companies have recently shifted their focus in university and innovation ecosystem engagement from incremental problem-solving toward long-term development and systematic exposure to new startups. In doing so, however, our research shows that companies have not always done enough to reconfigure the other elements of their engagement approach.

In such instances, the university partnership canvas offers a tool to systematically help executives assess their existing approaches and identify inconsistencies between their business goals and, for example, the structure of their existing partnerships. Against this background, the canvas can help executives define possible solutions to overcome any mismatches or tensions. They can also use the canvas to explore the impact of changing business goals on their existing university partnerships and, against this background, make timely decisions on what to change.

A technology company used the canvas to assess a strategic university partnership program that had been under way for more than five years, the primary business goal of which was to drive the development of new product lines or new businesses. As a first step in the assessment, we asked the people responsible for university relations globally to fill out the canvas, answering the questions one by one and inserting red lines and/or remarks when they found mismatches or tensions — in other words, when their answers to the six questions didn’t reinforce each other.

The assessment highlighted four mismatches and tensions:

Format Selection

In spite of the business goal of driving long-term development of new product lines or new businesses, the company’s preferred collaboration format was contract research. Contract research is a good match for short-term, incremental problem-solving but not for driving long-term development of new business lines.

Focus Areas

The company had no central process for selecting focus areas that were aligned to its innovation priorities. Instead, the focus areas were selected at the business-unit level, which led to narrowly scoped projects that weren’t aligned with primary business goals.

Partnership Selection

Although the company was focused on long-term development of new product lines or new businesses, it gave low priority to “entrepreneurial culture” in its criteria for selecting university partners.

Partnership Evaluation

The company did not have a KPI that was useful for evaluating the impact of projects in the partnership and the creation of new product lines or new businesses.

We then asked the university-relations managers from the company to come up with tentative solutions to address the mismatches and tensions, and to write the solutions on the canvas. They prioritized sponsored research and hackathons, with the expectation that hackathons could inform new projects that could lead to new business creation. As for selection criteria, they decided to still give the top priority to “familiarity” but also decided to give “entrepreneurial culture” a higher priority than “scientific excellence.” In selecting focus areas, university-relations staff wanted to create a centralized call for proposals (funded, if possible, by the CTO) as a way to drive more sponsored research projects and hackathons within areas they thought would impact several business units. Finally, they decided to create a KPI measuring the number of new product lines or new businesses based on joint research projects (See “Tech Company A’s Completed University Partnership Canvas.”).

In another example, a global technology company wanted to reprioritize its business goals from primarily short-term, incremental problem-solving toward a focus on systematic exposure to new business ideas and research-based startups, talent acquisition, and long-term development of new business lines. The company first assessed its current approach to university partnerships by using the canvas. It then inserted the reprioritized business goals and against this background worked through the rest of the questions to explore the impact of the revised goals on its approach to university partnerships.

When working through the questions on the canvas, the company realized that the change in business goals had a profound impact on its approach to university partnerships. Executives saw that they would need to (1) set up internal processes to make sure that the focus areas for university partnerships are aligned to the overall R&D priorities of the company, (2) apply resources to startup scouting and hackathons, (3) expand their set of knowledge brokers embedded in their preferred regional innovation ecosystems, and (4) develop KPIs that measure investments in startups and the number of ideas (from sources such as hackathons) that lead to the development of new product lines (See “Tech Company B’s Completed University Partnership Canvas.”).

Unlocking More Value

Partnering with universities in innovation ecosystems can be challenging, but the university partnership canvas can help companies develop a systematic approach to their interaction with universities, thus enabling both parties to unlock more value and pursue a more strategic approach for ecosystem engagement. In our view, companies shouldn’t use the canvas just as an internal tool for assessing and developing their approach to university partnerships. They should also use it in their ongoing dialogues with universities. In this way, the canvas can be a tool that corporations and universities use together to create transparency about the goals, formats, KPIs, and organizational structures of the partnerships under consideration for further development.



1. An example of the partnerships is the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. See

2. M. Perkmann and A. Salter, “How to Create Productive Partnerships With Universities,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 4 (summer 2012): 79-88.

3. D.E. Sanger, “Corporate Links Worry Scholars,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1982,; and University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science, “Celebrating 25th Anniversary of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Solid Mechanics,” n.d.,

4. Perkmann and Salter, “How to Create Productive Partnerships.”

5. “The University of British Columbia and Cisco Collaborate on Smart+ Connected Buildings and Smart Energy,” press release, May 27, 2013, https://

6. E. Redden, “From Beijing to Puget Sound,” Inside Higher Ed, June 19, 2015,

7. Siemens, for example, has created an organization of internal and university-based relationship managers to run their strategic programs (Centers of Knowledge Interchange, or CKI) with universities. For an example of a CKI university and some activities of the program, see More information is available at

8. The “university partnership canvas” is inspired by the “business model canvas” developed by A. Osterwalder and Y. Pigneur in their book “Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers” (New York: Wiley, 2010).

i. See


We would like to thank the following people for giving us insights into university relations and for many productive discussions (presented alphabetically by affiliation name): John Westensee and Anette Miltoft from Aarhus University; Louise Leong and Joe de Sousa from AstraZeneca; Nicole Eichmeier and Mirjam Storim from BMW; Ciro Acedo Boria, Alberto Lopez-Oleaga, and Manuel Martines Alonso from Ferrovial; Michel Benard from Google; Alessandro Curioni and Chris Sciacca from IBM; Karsten Keller from Nitto Avecia; Søren Bregenholt and Uli Stilz from Novo Nordisk; Kate Barnard and Mark Jefferies from Rolls-Royce; Rajiv Dhawan from Samsung; Najib Abusalbi from Schlumberger; and Natascha Eckert from Siemens. Finally, we would like to thank the participants in the seminar “Success Factors for University Partnerships,” who tested our university partnership canvas and gave us very valuable feedback.

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Comment (1)
Carlos Alberto Taquechel
Great article. The fostering of the University - Industry cooperation should be one of the main goals for both type of organisations. This strategic alliance is crucial for science, technology and innovation and a knowledge based economy.