Industry-University Partnerships: Managing An “Open” Innovation Network

Partnerships between industry and academia are growing and helping to shape the industry.

By Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi, Technical Editor

Today, most university’s research funding comes from Federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy. On average, it is estimated that U.S. industry spends more than $200 billion in research & development annually, but only spends 1 percent of its research budget in academia. This represents less than 6 percent of academic funding nationally.

This picture however, is about to change. There are many macro trends today that likely will lead to increased partnerships between academia and industry. These changes include:

Shifts in corporate research and development (R&D) strategies:

  • Shift from basic to more applied research. There is an increased need for external suppliers of more basic research. Also, there is a reduction in time lines for all R&D projects, thereby leading companies to be less willing to support longer-term activities;
  • Shift from corporate toward division-level, line-of-business research. Greater emphasis on shorter-term R&D projects — purpose driven research — more directly related to existing products and processes.

Increased competition for Federal funds:

  • Increasing emphasis on larger, applied research, and deliverables;
  • More emphasis on inter-disciplinary research aimed at solving grand challenges; and
  • More emphasis on job creation and use-inspired research.

Before 1980, the government retained ownership of inventions made with federal funding. It is estimated however, that the government licensed less than 4 percent of all inventions it had acquired — more than 28,000 patents. It was also recognized that since many of the inventions were not advanced sufficiently for commercialization, often, the inventors participation in the process of scale up and transfer of the know-how was necessary1. This led to the establishment of The Bayh-Dole Act of the 1980 which transformed the nation’s system of technology transfer by enabling universities to retain title to inventions including those funded by federal funds except that the government retains march-in rights.

It is not surprising therefore, that the start of a dialog between a university and a company always starts with a discussion of how one would manage intellectual property (IP) generated by the university as the result of the collaboration with industry.

There are many approaches to how universities manage IP, and these methods vary from institution to institution but the The Nonwovens Institute (NWI) is beginning to see the emergence of some basic guidelines that are common across many universities. And there now are rankings of universities in terms of patents issued and licensed including a recent report from the Milken Institute on technology transfer2.

Raleigh-based North Carolina State University (NC State) ranks 9th overall among universities without a medical school with the following breakdown in individual categories3:

  • patents issued: 9th;
  • licensing issued: 4th’
  • licensing income: 6th; and
  • start-ups: 9th.

Many institutions including NC State have implemented policies and procedures that help take technology commercialization to the next level. This enables institutes such as NWI to develop strategies that are consistent with the mission of the institute but yet lead to economic development. As a state land grant institution, economic development is a must and a major driver for what NWI does. Economic development is the intersection of public policy and private commerce for job and wealth creation — and job creation is very critical to what NWI does. Economic development will lead to economic growth and naturally to job creation. Undoubtedly, these will lead to wealth creation as well.

NWI has evolved with multiple pillars that use different approaches in terms of establishing partnerships with industry. These pillars are based on the concept of Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs).

Perhaps the best description of TRL is one recently coined by the department of energy shown in Figure 1.

NonwovensFig1One can add to this two areas where the valley of death resides — at the intersection of TRL 3 and 4, and again at the intersection of TRL 8 and 9.

Historically, most university research has focused in TRL 1 and 2 and patents are often filed when TRL 3 is reached at the proof of concept level. Technologies at this stage are far from being ready for commercialization. On the other hand, most industry research is now focusing more on TRL 6 to 8 leaving an innovation gap that can be problematic in the long run. TRL 3 and 4 technologies are needed to feed the product development of TRL 6 to 8.

To bridge this gap, the activities at NWI are broken into 5 distinct areas.

Pillar One:
Knowledge And Know-How Creation (Core Research)

In a shared atmosphere, NWI brings industry and academia together to work on grand challenges that fall in the TRL 1 and 2 levels. The current membership of the institute approaches 70 corporations as well as the NATICK soldier center. The work is basic and fundamental, yet relevant to the needs of the industries NWI serves. These also work as a platform for training doctoral students with the right set of skillsets that would help retrain the industry’s competitive advantage.

NWI’s industry engagement mission will ensure that the research performed ultimately is an enabler for product development. That product development is generally accomplished through private industry partners. Basic and applied research equals knowledge creation and that knowledge is made available through publications (by the students and faculty) and product development (in NWI’s case by industry sponsors/partners).

There are many academic models that measure impact, input and output and try to develop metrics by which institutions like NWI can operate and be impactful. But, the secret is real simple — NWI must ensure it brings value to all its stakeholders, yet remain relevant as an academic entity.

Knowledge creation must be truly focused on knowledge creation. In a shared environment of many diverse sets of interests, NWI has to focus on basic and fundamental, yet relevant, research that is focused on identifying solutions to specific knowledge gaps. While this may be a piece of the big picture, it can empower member companies to use such knowledge to innovate and perhaps create the next generation of innovative products that perhaps they could not have done alone. The experiential learning to which students get exposed prepares them for the corporate world. They learn the secrets of problem solving and how to breakdown a major problem into manageable pieces, formulating solutions that are based on science and engineering principles. Their solutions matter and do not end up in a closet. The training and mentoring offered by corporate members over the three to four years students spend at NWI as a doctoral student prepares them beyond what any university education alone would offer. In NWI’s short history, it has trained more than 170 Ph.D.s at the institute who have gone on to become leaders in various industry segments.

Core projects do not often lead to IP and that is no accident. NWI focuses on science and engineering and not product development as part of its shared research activities. In its history beginning in 1991, and even earlier when it existed as a small consortium, there have been no more than a few patents that have come about from the core research. In a shared environment, this is a key element in NWI’s success — it is fulfilling the mission of knowledge generation, training future leaders for the industry and beyond in a shared environment without creating any unnecessary conflicts and without being focused merely on IP generation, spin-offs and the like. This model works — competitors and the entire supply chain will come to the table when the research is focused on solving grand challenges that everyone faces. The IP will ultimately arise from how one would use the information generated from these research activities.

NWI’s core programs are strongly focused on knowledge generation only and that has become the hallmark of how the shared environment is managed. All members contribute to the agenda, the discussions, the identification and ultimately, the selection and stewardship of the core research agenda. This model works in a shared environment that must be relevant but non-competitive and only if we achieve operational excellence in:

  • transparent communications; and
  • collaborative environment.

Pillar Two: Knowledge Transfer — Work Force Development

This too is core to NWI’s mission. This is where the know-how created under pillar 1 can form the basis for training that would go from operator level training to executive level training. This type of training goes beyond normal training that universities are used to. Different skillsets often are required for training this level of workforce development in that the training often is a lot more hands on that normal lectures. This requires the right type of facilities and the right type of instructors who are well versed in the scientific knowledge, but also fully familiar with the emerging processes and technologies NWI employs. Lectures are collaboratively developed with industry partners to make sure that the content stays relevant. Content is not static; it must be updated regularly to take into account new learning, new developments and new process technologies.

NWI relies on its collaboration with not only industry, but also the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA). INDA manages NWI’s training programs and the two organizations collaboratively offer a series of courses that go from the basic to the most advanced. Interestingly, the content for these courses has come from the first pillar and there are no textbooks that can teach the materials covered in these courses.

Pillar Three: Testbed For Industry — Analytical and Fabrication

To advance technologies from proof of concept to TRL 6 or 7 requires both lab scale and pilot scale equipment. This equipment can be extensive and expensive to manage and maintain. However, in a shared environment, the costs can be managed. NWI has continued to build and update its facilities continuously since 2000, and today, has the most extensive set of lab scale and pilot scale equipment found anywhere. Critical to this is also knowledgeable staff who can not only operate the equipment but also help in defining and refining the processes for emerging materials.

This model works only if the facilities are state-of-the-art and maintained to industry standards.

Pillar Four: Help Create New Products, New Industries — Product Development

Product development requires IP management that is both industry friendly and flexible, or it will not work.

NWI calls these efforts non-shared and non-core and takes on the role of helping industry partners develop new products or processes. This is where the institute uses its know-how and extensive capabilities to advance technologies from TRL 3 or 4 to TLR 6 or 7.

Non-core activities are carried out typically for a specific sponsor outside of the core activities and the results are only shared with the sponsor.

NWI also considers non-core activities important in that they help with the bigger role the institute can play in terms of technical assistance provided to corporations, economic development and in job creation. NWI instituted a program dealing with such activities some time ago that helps translate science into reality and is designed to move technology towards market using a decision making process based on sound stage-gate processes.

The institute’s guiding principals are that such programs must be transformative in that the new product or activity:

  • challenges what is possible;
  • disrupts existing learning curves; and
  • leaps beyond today’s technologies.

Therefore, NWI does not engage in reverse engineering or helping to create a me-too product. In the last 10 plus years, the institute has been quite successful at creating some new products and processes, and these developments have led to a number of patents and commercial products. These activities are driven towards using NWI’s know-how and the knowledge gained over the years to help develop a new product or process and, inevitably, these activities lead to patents. The net result is that NWI has many more patents arising from non-core research programs sponsored by individual companies. And, the licensing policies have allowed the institute to transfer these patents to industry partners.

Pillar Five: Help Commercialize New Products — Product Incubation

The nonwoven industry eco system is built around large volumes to control costs. This means that the industry is highly capital intensive and therefore, not designed for dealing with small volume or niche products … yet. Therefore, many of the novel ideas that would result in new products or new applications often do not get commercialized.

NWI formed a first of its kind manufacturing incubator called LINC LLC. The challenge with commercializing any new technology is that often, new manufacturing assets are required and capital expenditures are difficult to justify in the absence of significant proven market potential.

For new products made from nonwovens, often, short runs are not possible on large nonwovens manufacturing assets. A manufacturing incubator will allow new products to be introduced into the marketplace before significant investment is required from an industrial partner.

This becomes even more critical for new products that require specialized equipment or components. In almost all cases, no manufacturing entity can initially produce the product and, therefore, there exists a natural barrier to commercialization. LINC was established to help facilitate the initial phase of introduction and testing of the products by limited manufacturing of the products for the companies interested in licensing the technologies developed at NWI. Figure 2 summarizes NWI’s activities.


NonwovensFig3NWI Outlook

The institute’s core programs are focused on knowledge creation and not on IP, and NWI believes that its role in the core programs is to enable members to learn, find solutions to common and often very complex problems, and provide the tools necessary that would enable member companies to innovate.

In non-core activities designed around specific needs for one company, NWI can, and has, created new products — these however, NWI believes, do not, and should not, create any conflicts in that such products are new and while they might replace a product in another field, they bring possible new opportunities to the nonwovens industry. NWI views these activities as being synergistic.





May/June 2017