Alex Stockham, communications manager at In-Part, looks at the challenges surrounding international collaborations.

If long-distance relationships are hard enough, imagine trying to start and maintain a collaborative research project between teams in academia and industry who are based on different sides of the globe. It might make a project easier if you can find a partner in your neighbourhood (or country), but science is a global enterprise. Getting university innovation out of the lab and onto the market requires collaborating with industry across borders.

Location is a challenge for universities

Some universities and research institutes, particularly in Asia, Australia and South America, face a bigger challenge than others in establishing international collaborations with industry. Most of this comes down to location. In a lot of cases, a lack of national industrial research and development infrastructure means that there isn’t a domestic path that universities can take to commercialise a breakthrough or discovery with industry.

This requirement to collaborate internationally was recently shared in a conversation with Fiona Nelms, director of technology transfer at Australian National University (ANU):“In Australia, international collaboration is a must. We don’t have the breadth of industry or company R&D centres as the US or Europe.”

There are also physical challenges that make the logistics of an international collaboration difficult. Transporting delicate materials, live cells, and researchers present their own complexities.
Building trust, finding synergy and establishing productive working relationships between teams across time-zones can be tough at first. Teleconferencing and a decent internet connection make this easier. But it might take a few early-morning or late-evening calls.

“Given the distances involved, [both] within Australia and internationally, we are often engaging via email, telephone or video conference anyway rather than in person. Distance and time zones are an issue for us,but the team are used to calls out-of-hoursand long-distance travel,” Nelms said.

Even with a flexible-hours work culture that opens the door to partners further afield, an initial face-to-face meeting can be invaluable. Having both sides of a collaboration understand each other’s aims, requirements and approaches to working help to establish the foundations for a successful partnership.

“When we can, we make the effort to meet partners in person even if it means [adding] some extra time on existing travel,” Nelms said.

Location is a footnote for industry

The responsibility of commercialising academic research doesn’t fall solely with the institute. Industry, companies and R&D professionals have just as much of a part to play in ensuring that distance isn’t an issue when it comes to making the most out of academic research.

When we asked R&D professionals what was the most important consideration for them in a decision to initiate a conversation with a university after reading about a new academic breakthrough, only 6% of the respondents noted ‘location’ as a determining factor.

Figure 1: In-Part survey responses,“What’s the most valuable information in a project summary for you to make a decision about its relevance to your company?” (January 2019, Multiple choice question, 63 respondents)

This sentiment – that location isn’t high on the list of concerns for R&D professionals engaged in working with universities – was also highlighted in a recent article by Noelle Gracy, the head of Elsevier’s research collaboration office. In her blog, Noelle dissects nine interviews she ran with R&D professionals in Chicago last year at the UIDP27 conference. None of the R&D professionals Noelle interviewed selected new academic partners based on their location.

The appetite for global university-industry collaboration

Some of the world’s most game-changing innovations have been developed through international collaborations between academia and industry. There’s the deployment of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by the pharmaceutical industry (a disease that affects 4.7% of the global adult population), and the commercialisation of wifi by researchers at CSIRO, who have licensing agreements with 90% of the global telecoms industry, generating revenue exceeding A$430m ($290m).

Out of the more than 6,000 interactions between teams in academia and industry that have been initiated through In-Part’s matchmaking platform for university-industry collaboration, 75% are between partners in different countries. Breaking that figure down, 72% of the industry interactions UK universities receive through In-Part are initiated by companies overseas. That is compared to 63% for universities in the US. And for universities in Australia, 96% of their interactions with industry through In-Part were initiated by an international partner.

Figure 2: The percentage of interactions with industry that are initiated by a company in a different country for universities using In-Part. (Data: In-Part, 2014–2019)

Australian National University matches the Australian average: 96% of the conversations they have started with R&D teams through In-Part are with companies overseas. As Nelms highlighted to us, an open and proactive approach to working with R&D teams around the world ensures success.

Nelms added: “I do not think that we approach national or international partners differently. We haven’t faced significant challenges with contract negotiations with overseas companies — except the language challenges with Chinese companies. We always seek to find a mutually beneficial position in all our contracting and pride ourselves in being flexible where we can to meet our partners’ needs.”

In the levels of interaction shown through In-Part, ANU’s international approach to working with industry, and in the disregard for university location as a factor for R&D professionals, it is clear to see that international collaboration is not only possible but an essential part of commercialising academic research.