Tony Boccanfuso has spent the past 17 years as CEO of UIDP helping universities and corporates collaborate better on research — here's how.

cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough episode 110 with Anthony Boccanfuso

Tony Boccanfuso has spent the past 17 years trying to work out how to get universities and corporations to collaborate better on research.

Boccanfuso is the chief executive of UIDP, a non-profit association between large companies and leading research universities around the world. The invitation-only organisation has more than 200 members.

It all started with frustrations over negotiating sponsored research contracts, but UIDP’s work today goes beyond this. Boccanfuso tells us: “We also look at strategic engagement — how do you work comprehensively between organisations? — [and] we’re spending more and more time on talent and talent development and talent exchange.”

Among the guidance produced by UIDP is how to bring industrial PhD programmes to sectors outside of life sciences (where they are a common element) and educating the FBI on how foreign corporations might access research at a US university.

UIDP has also created much more ambitious programmes, such as an initiative focused on helping historically black colleges and universities in the US to become more research-intensive (which they have not traditionally been). And it is leading a US National Science Foundation-sponsored programme called Engineering Research Visioning Alliance, which is bringing together scientists, policymakers and others to drive engineering research in areas that benefit society.



Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Tony, welcome.

Well, thank you so much for having me.

I look forward to our conversation. To start with, set the scene a little bit for our listeners, can you give me an overview of UIDP?

Sure. Yeah, we’re a global network of large companies and large universities and other research funders and research performers who are trying to find ways to get more impact from their investments and collaborations between the sectors.

And so while some people think when I tell them about us that we do technical projects like trying to create new small molecules or develop new algorithms, that’s not really our business model. Our business model is bringing together like-minded folks to talk about ways to increase the ROI when companies and universities and perhaps national labs or other performers or funders want to work collaboratively by removing barriers and finding new ways to collaborate.

Amazing. What kind of organisations do you have among your membership?

Sure. It’s a diverse set. So if you look on the corporate side, we have a lot of companies that are in the high-tech space. So we have Apple and Microsoft and IBM and Cisco. But then we also have companies like Boeing, and Procter & Gamble, and Smuckers, and Fidelity Investments, and Anglo American. Because once again, we’re really talking about ways to extract more from these collaborations and we have competitors and we have people from totally distinct sectors.

On the university side, it’s mostly the larger research institutions because they’re the ones that are more likely to have holistic engagement with companies. And so it’s great schools like Toronto and Tokyo and ANU in Australia and Cambridge and Oxford and UCL and KU Leuven. And then in the States, it’s Caltech, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Texas, among others. And like I said, we also have a few others that are research performers or funders as well. But we don’t have federal government organisations as members.

Okay. Quite a lot of heavy hitters in your membership though. Names that I’m sure everyone will recognise listening to this — on both sides, universities and corporates. You use an invite-only system. How does an organisation become part of UIDP?

Yeah. So if we look at our goals for how we evaluate requests for membership, it’s really about advancing the interests of the current members. And one of the things that we’ve heard consistently from the member representatives who participate now is they like the intimacy of our group. And so the real question when organisations contact us, it’s pretty straightforward. Would the addition of that organisation as a member advance the interests of our current members? And if the answer is yes, then we add them and we extend an invitation, and if not, then we don’t.

Non-members though can still get a lot of value from engaging with us in other modalities. So we have a lot of information that we’ve created around corporate academic partnerships and increasingly now with corporate academic government and even private sector funders. And so there’s still a lot of learnings that you can gather from our activities without being a member. So we’re not trying to as much protect the learnings as much as we are protect the intimacy of our group because we find this real value to that.

Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. How many members do you have currently, if you are willing to share that number?

Yeah, absolutely. So we have north of 200 and it’s about 125 universities. Most in the US, but we have an increasing growth in the non-US membership. And then we have about 70 companies. And then we have a smattering, like I said, of other research performers. Those can be hospital systems or national labs.

You said you facilitate these kinds of big research projects. How do these partnerships work? UIDP, where does it fit into this piece between universities and corporates?

Sure. So if you think about our business model and why we were created, it was to find ways to increase, once again, the impact of partnerships and you do that by finding new ways to collaborate and removing barriers. And so when we started about this 17 years ago, it was how can we reduce contracting time because it is still, to this day, a huge challenge when companies and universities want to collaborate in terms of how much time it takes to get a sponsored research agreement into place. And that was our start.

And so if you think about what we do today, it’s not just on contracting. We tend to think about things in various verticals. We still do a lot of work in contracting. In fact, we’re hosting an event in January in Scottsdale, Arizona, where we bring together a couple of hundred of the best negotiators in the world to talk about contemporary strategy. So we still do a lot of our contracting and compliance. We also look at strategic engagement, how do you work comprehensively between organisations?

We’re spending more and more time on talent and talent development and talent exchange.

And then the last one, which has really been growing, is this whole idea of government engagement, economic development, innovation ecosystems. That seems to be the word or the phrase of the year, innovation ecosystems. But trying to figure out how do you maximise the opportunities from that? And so our business model is predicated on our member representatives. We have close to 9,000 of them today, even though we have 200 organisational members. The 9,000 people in their day jobs, they face challenges or they think there’s an opportunity to do something different. And they come to us and they’ll ask, “Do we have any insights on that?” And then if we do, we share with them. And if we don’t, we then basically go out to our membership and say, “Is anybody else interested in this?” And typically, if it’s of interest to one of our members, it’s of interest to more.

And so I’ll just give you one quick example. Historically, in the pharmaceutical space, there have been industrial postdocs. That has not occurred in other disciplines or other sectors. A few years ago, we had a query from one of our members who’s not a pharmaceutical company about industrial postdoc programmes and what are the benefits, what are the challenges, how much time investment does it require, what are the costs, what’s the hiring from those postdocs longer term, what’s the rationale for doing that? If you had to do it again, would you do differently? So we did develop some guidance on that. And then from that, the individual who we asked took it within his own company and they’ve actually launched an industrial postdoc programme, which again, outside of the pharma sector, using the knowledge of what our current members have done in that space. And I think that’s an illustration of the type of work that we do where people have questions or they think there’s an opportunity and they want to crowdsource it. And we have a tremendously knowledgeable community.

And so, you know, they are very willing to share because once again, this isn’t proprietary. Nobody signs a nondisclosure. We don’t worry about antitrust because we’re not talking about specific technology development. Once again, we’re talking about the process.

Okay. Yeah. That’s quite fascinating, actually, the postdoc is not something that I would have thought about that you would facilitate or that you would help create. So that’s a really cool example, actually.

You do run a couple of interesting initiatives, and I think they both want a bit of a closer look. There’s the HBCU initiative. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about and what you hope that will turn into or has perhaps already turned into?

Sure. So for your non-US listeners, HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and there’s over a hundred of them in the United States. And they were created at a time when there were limitations on attendance at colleges or other institutions of higher education for African-Americans back in the late 1800s. And so there are these series of schools, and they’re located around the United States, but mostly along the Eastern seaboard and mostly in the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic, even though there are some in Texas and one in California and a couple in Ohio.

These schools, none of them are truly research-intensive, so using the Carnegie classification out of the 107 of the schools, about a dozen are R2s, so they’re research schools, but they’re not research-intensive. And back in January 2021, a number of companies came to us that were members and said, “We would like to do more with HBCUs rather than just send them a check or support scholarships.” And they came to me and said, “Look, you know, UIDP is our academic engagement organisation. Help us figure out what we can do with HBCUs to provide them greater benefit while also benefiting the company.”

And so we held a town hall meeting of our members, member representatives. We had a significant percentage of our industry members show up for that call, and multiple people from companies. So some people were in workforce, some people were in academic partnerships, some people were in philanthropy, and we spent a couple of hours just talking about what is currently being done and what we could do to add value. And so after doing some due diligence and reaching out to a number of HBCUs, we brought somebody on board to help us manage that effort who was a graduate of an HBCU, and we identified a lane for us that was not being really occupied as much as some of the other lanes, and that was, how could companies, other universities, government, private funders help HBCUs grow research and programme capacity through collaborations? And so that’s been our focus, and we’ve done a number of things within that.

We’ve created a webinar series where HBCUs can talk about their research and programmes, you know, the research capabilities and specific programmes that would be of interest for collaboration. We’ve seen positive things from that. We’ve helped them create research capability statements by creating a template for them that they can use, and then we hold an annual conference. And so, you know, last year, it was in Nashville, it was co-hosted by the local HBCUs. We had 460 people show up, 177 organisations, 54 HBCUs represented by 175 individuals, and there was just a tremendous energy in the room because there’s a lot of desire among all parties to help these HBCUs who want to grow research and programme capabilities through collaboration.

And so this effort now is institutionalised. We did it as a pilot, which is a way we do a lot of things. We’re in our third year now, and we’re excited about what we’re doing in this space because we know through anecdotes that we are doing things that are contributing to these organisational goals both in the companies, other universities, federal agencies, and then also the HBCUs themselves. That’s an example of one thing that we’ve done that I don’t think anybody who was at the original organisational meeting of UIDP ever thought we would be doing.

Yeah. I mean, 460 people. I know in conference terms that might not seem like a lot, but that is a considerable number of people together in one room. Yeah.

It’s the largest event we’ve ever done, once again, because that’s not really… our business model is not having large conferences. So it worked well for us. And one more thing I’ll just say about that.


We had no HBCUs at the time because once again, some of our criteria is around research expenditures. And so really none of the HBCUs fit that, but we knew going back to our original premise, which is would adding HBCUs as members advance the interests of our current members? The answer to that for most of our members, especially those in the US, was a definitive yes. So we extended invitations to a strategic set of the HBCUs that were in the R2 Carnegie classification, and we now have six HBCUs as members. And so that’s an example where, once again, we go back to that guiding post for us, which is would the addition of an organisation help our current members advance their mission?

Yeah. That makes complete sense. I want to take a look at the other initiative that you created as well, Engineering Research Visioning Alliance. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came to be and what it plans to do?

Sure. Yeah. I don’t know that there’s enough time on this podcast for that, but just quickly, Engineering Research Visioning Alliance is a National Science Foundation-supported project that was envisioned, and no pun intended, but was envisioned at a workshop that took place in August 2019 in DC, where various government, corporate, academic, and foundation representatives got together to talk about how engineering research could help advance the national interests of the United States while ultimately improving the human condition. And so from that, that led to the idea of creating an alliance that would do visioning events to look at not where engineering research is currently being supported, but nascent areas of research that need additional attention or areas that perhaps we’re not getting as much attention. And so I attended the workshop, I thought it was a good idea, but we had really no intention of applying. The UIDP model is not created on going after large federal opportunities, and traditionally, we’ve had very small investments from government, and it’s usually based to a specific project.

But I was contacted by representatives from the Big Ten Academic Alliance, which represents the schools in the Big Ten, who contacted me and said, “Would you be interested in working with us? We think you would be a good organiser and convener for ERVA.” And so we spent a couple of months and we brought in another organisation called the EPSCoR/IDeA Foundation, which represents over half the states in the US who have less R&D funding per capita, and the three of us put in a proposal and won that. And so we are the administrator, but we do this through a cooperative agreement that brings together the National Science Foundation and then the two other organisations and ourselves. And we’re in year three of that project right now, it’s a five-year cooperative agreement, and it’s really about identifying strategies, once again, for where engineering research can have real impact and what specific research areas need additional attention.

Okay. Yeah. I’ll come back to you. We can do a separate episode about that.

Yeah. And there’s a website,, for anybody who would like to see more information on ERVA and what’s going on in that area.

Awesome. I’ll put a link in the show notes as well, so people can easily find that. You’ve already — I think I mentioned it, used the term — and you used the term, innovation ecosystems. How do university-industry partnerships come into play in these ecosystems? How can these partnerships support local development?

Sure. So this is not a simple question that necessitates a simple answer. So I do think it’s incredibly important that we consider how local innovation ecosystems can be nurtured and developed strategically and then tactically. And while innovation ecosystems is a relatively new term and that’s gotten a lot of attention, this has been around a long time. Michael Porter has been talking about this for over a generation, talking about how regions can develop based on leveraging their existing talents and strengths. But what we’re seeing now, and it’s not just in the US, but it’s really globally, are efforts to support areas that are beyond the traditional technology hubs, right?

So in the US, there’s a term like flyover country that you hear a lot, right? That a lot of the R&D expenditures and investments are along the coasts. You have the same issue in the UK with the Oxford-Cambridge nexus, right? And what about Manchester? What about Birmingham? And you see it in other parts of Europe as well. And so how companies and universities and other connecting organisations, because I think they play a critical role here as well… So every community, every region has some dedicated group, traditionally a nonprofit, that’s mission is to advance the economic interests of those communities.

Everybody wants high-paying jobs. Everybody wants jobs that “fit into the knowledge economy.” And so how do you compete with other places in these areas and these opportunities? And so when I think we talk about university-industry collaborations, I think we need to disaggregate those. So institutions of higher education can go down to community colleges, to four-year schools, to schools that have PhD programmes. And just like on the company side, you have large companies that might have research capabilities, right, to be honest with you, they’re more likely to have a manufacturing facility or have other needs than a true research hub. And then there are small companies, right, that maybe emanate from the university or just other startups that exist in the region that want to leverage the capabilities of the local institution of higher education. And so I think partnerships among all these various players, and it’s really a mosaic… And I think one of the best things that people can do is to spend time developing a true map of the various assets they have in their community.

And we spend a lot of time visiting regions to talk about their local innovation ecosystems. We do regional events all over the United States. We actually did one in London recently, and candidly, we’ll go anywhere that our members are that want us to go. And in those sessions, I would say that one of the real challenges is for people to take an honest assessment of where they are at. You know, whenever I hear people say, “We want to be the Silicon Valley of the Midwest,” or “We want to be the Cambridge of the coast,” or whatever that may be, I think you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And so I think doing an honest assessment of where you are, and every community has resources and assets and strengths, and then figure out how do you leverage those to advance your mission, I think is really, really important.

And so, you know, I think every community can optimise what they’re currently doing. Even great places like San Diego can optimise what they’re doing, or places like Amsterdam. You can optimise what you’re doing, but you need data, and you need to be willing to be honest with people in the room. And people that are in the corporate sector in your community, they live there typically, and they want those communities to be successful as well. So they may have to fight inside their companies, if they’re a large multinational, for resources to try to grow what they’re doing in their region. And that may be predicated on global factors, but it may also be predicated on what’s happening in that community. And so that’s why I said it’s really thinking about what the mosaic of players are in that innovation ecosystem is really…

Yeah. Yeah. That makes perfect sense. I quite like the term “mosaic” as well for it. I had a question here about the, well, it’s many people talking about now about the quadruple helix, or sometimes even the quintuple helix, bringing the environment in. Are there… And I know you said you don’t have government offices in your membership, but do you see many of those kinds of partnerships coming out of UIDP that bring in federal or nonprofits or whatever it may be?

Sure. So the federal governments in the US or in any country, Germany, the UK, India, China, et cetera, all governments are trying to figure out how they can leverage the academic core for engagement space to advance national interests, right? So candidly, they have to be selfish. They have to care about what’s happening in their own borders. And so every government funding body in the R&D space is now trying to figure out how we can make investments, financial and non-financial, to leverage academic corporate partnerships to then help us achieve national goals.

And so in the US, we’ve tended to be less strategic in terms of organising it through industrial policy, but other countries have been very open and explicit about industrial policy. And more recently in the US, we’re seeing as close to an industrial policy as you can through things like the CHIPS and Science Act. And so what you’re seeing happen around the globe in developed countries are the scientific and technological funding bodies are trying to figure out if we make an investment, how do we leverage that with corporate investments to fund youth-inspired research at universities or in other research institutes that will be translated into products and services that will help the economy and the national well-being of our country.

And on the flip side, you’re seeing companies who maybe have shunned away from government support because they don’t want to be subject to rules or regulations, who now because the amount of money available is so significant, they’re contacting me saying, “Tony, can you help us build collaborations with universities to then go after government funding?”

And so while we don’t have government members, we’ve worked for years with federal agencies in the US like the NSF, the NIH, the FBI, NIST, DTRA. We’ve also had conversations with groups in Canada like Mitacs and NSERC, and we’ve done events that have involved groups like UKRI from the UK. So every government agency is interested, who supports science and technology development, all of them are interested in figuring out, once again, what can parties bring to the table to help us achieve outcomes that we couldn’t do independently?

Yeah. Yeah. I’m not going to press you on it, but I quite like the mention of the FBI. That is not an agency that I was expecting you to mention, but it makes sense. Even things like cybersecurity or, yeah, GovTech, there’s a lot of, yeah.

Yeah. I can tell you what we did with them, once again, just a little bit more illumination. Every university in the US has an FBI liaison that helps them with answering questions or issues the university may have, and there are certainly a lot of issues that exist today. And what FBI asked us to do was help put on a series of training events for them where we shared insights on how a company can get engaged with the university.

How does a multinational company from outside the US entering into a sponsored research agreement with a major research university in Ohio or in Minnesota? They wanted to understand that process, and so that’s what we did. We did a series of training events for them talking about how companies from specifically outside the US, but also inside the US, wind up gaining access to university personnel and facilities.

Okay. That’s not quite as secretive as people might expect, but still quite interesting, actually. We’ve talked a lot about universities and corporates kind of working together. Getting research out the door is one thing, but do you think, well, the feedback that we’ve had, do you think that universities do translation the way they should, or is there something that they should do differently?

Yeah. So universities, I think, are under a lot of pressure to create startups, and going back to my earlier statement about supporting local innovation ecosystems, the mayor of a town wants to be able to boast about the number of startups that are in the region, and I think a greater level of due diligence is needed before universities go about to create a startup. I think there can be a lot of enthusiasm for an idea to take it to a startup. I know the UK just did a big report on the startup environment there and where the UK rates.

What I’ve heard from many larger multinational corporations who are then asked to invest in these startups or to partner with them or perhaps make an investment, I think they would like greater levels of scrutiny around the appropriate time to create a commercial entity, and that universities can actually be excellent incubators for idea development, and there are more opportunities now than ever before for universities to get proof-of-concept funding, to do small-scale development.

I mean, the makerspaces at some universities are truly fantastic. I think you may know my wife has a startup, and she was at Yale when she was there as a staff scientist. She went over to the makerspace to try to get help developing the body for her robot, and it was fantastic, the 3D printing that was available to help her do something. And so I think universities are under tremendous pressure to create startups. It’s very easy in today’s world, you have a couple of hundred pounds and a laser printer, you can create a startup. The real question is how many of those are going to generate a single dollar of revenue. And so I wish there was perhaps a greater level of scrutiny before startups are created.

Does that mean perhaps getting startups internally to a later stage or further development up the TRL, or does it mean potentially not even creating a startup altogether and going down the licensing route more often?

Yeah, so once again, I don’t think it’s all or nothing. I don’t think it means you don’t have startups, or everything should be a startup. What I’m suggesting is a higher level of due diligence on these ideas before a startup is created. And so what you’re seeing among some of the multinational companies are programmes where they’ll co-invest in development within the university in ideas. And one great example of that is Deerfield Management that has done large-scale investments around the world at academic medical centres, looking at preclinical work that is not a startup at that point where they’re investing in research, which then they hope will lead to a startup that can then be monetised and then developed into a company that can be acquired or sold, right? So I think there are different models out there.

Once again, I’m not opposed to startups. I just think if you want to get large multinational corporations to help develop things into products that you really need to be asking them before you create the startup, perhaps, “Is this a good time in the evolution, or is it something that needs more time within the university for development?” And some universities do development better than others, to be honest.

That is not a surprise to hear. Some universities are just better at these things than others. I’m not going to ask you which ones. There is another challenge, and I think you mentioned it in passing earlier, which is training people. Staffing is, I think, a massive challenge everywhere in this space currently. Do you see that getting better? Do you see it getting worse? What could be done about it, if anything?

Yeah. So there’s a lot of factors going on. If you’re talking about the management of engagement from the research side, around research administrators, tech transfer professionals, corporate relations, or academic engagement managers from corporations. I’ll put on my old consulting hat, because I used to work for one of the big four firms. We always talked about things being people, processes, and technology.

So if you think about this being a pie chart, if you can increase the importance of technology, you can potentially decrease the number of people involved. And if you have better processes, you can decrease the number of people. The challenge is, the pie is getting bigger. And so even if technology takes on a bigger role, the number of people submitting proposals, the number of people seeking funding, is growing exponentially.

And so the real challenge is that unlike, say, government grant applications, which are fairly black and white in terms of submission, whether it’s to Horizon in Europe or in the US, the NIH, or whatever, there may be a lot of forms, but it’s pretty pro forma in terms of how you submit. You know, you check all the boxes, the numbers add up, and you submit.

Academic corporate engagement from a research administration perspective is a lot more challenging. If you go back to my earlier comment, I mean, UIDP was created because companies have expressed significant frustration on how long it took to get research agreements into place with universities, felt like the companies didn’t really understand what academics do and what their motivations are. And so that was really our genesis. And it’s still a major challenge, as I mentioned. And so you really need skilled people to negotiate agreements between companies and universities. And the people who do the government submissions have a different skillset than those who do academic corporate partnerships.

And this is true, by the way, on both sides. So at a company, they may want to issue a contract to a university to do work. They send it over to procurement, and the person in procurement is told to issue a contract for $250,000 for a white paper. They don’t care about anything else. They’re purchasing a white paper for $250,000. And so when the university sends them a contract and it has all these clauses and provisos in it, for a lot of companies, both those that don’t have a large academic engagement group, they may have someone who’s buying, you know, widgets, who’s also buying the white paper. And so it’s a challenge on the corporate side, and on the university side, it’s the same challenge.

And so we’re getting to a situation where the system is strained so much that people are now hiring third parties to do research administration. So they’re outsourcing research administration. There are some really good models in other places. I’ll give credit to my friends in the state of Kentucky, where they’ve centralised some technology transfer and commercialisation services for smaller institutions. The National Science Foundation in the US has established a programme called GRANTED to help schools that are less research-intensive to do this. You’re also seeing a lot more remote positions, where students are saying, “You don’t have to move. You know, if we hire you, you can live where you are.” So I think this is a big problem.

On the corporate side, it’s a little bit different of an issue. Academic engagement has not traditionally been a career pathway. So there are a few people out there, and a lot of people who are probably listening to this know Malcolm Skingle at GSK. Malcolm has worked at GSK for 50 years. He’s been doing academic engagement management for GSK for a long time, long, long, long time. Most people in this space don’t have career paths like that. So you get people in who don’t necessarily, are not as familiar with the nuances around academic engagement, and that can slow down the process as well.

Picking up on that thread then, looking at your own career, you’ve been in this space for a while now. You’ve been leading UIDP going back to 2007, initially as the executive director before you became an independent organisation in 2015. Before that, you were also at University of South Carolina, Bowling Green State University, the NIH, and the NSF. How did you get interested in this space, and what has kept you engaged all these years?

Yeah. So thanks for pointing out that I’m old, I appreciate that. Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but when I was an undergraduate, I was a chemistry major, and I really liked political science classes. And so the summer before my senior year of college, I was talking to my political science professor, and he asked me how many classes I had taken in political science. And I took all my electives in political science, and he goes, “Well, you know, if you take this one class, you can have a double major.” And I was like, “That’s kind of interesting.” So I did that, and when I was in graduate school, I was trying to figure out, you know, what was the next step for me. I didn’t see myself as a bench scientist at a major research university. I wasn’t that talented, to be honest.

And so I was looking at teaching jobs at some smaller liberal arts colleges. I applied to a couple of company jobs, and there were these programmes where you could go to Washington for a year and either work on the Hill or work at an association working on legislative and executive branch activities. And I applied, and I got one from the American Chemical Society, which kind of, you know, launched my career. And it was interesting because I had an offer to go to a small Catholic liberal arts college, and I don’t regret my career path, but I think I would have been really happy. I think I could have done the 30 years and gotten the gold watch, but this was an opportunity where, you know, it was a win-win. If I did it for a year and I liked it, great, and if I didn’t, then I could always go back to being a professor, right?

And I’ve done some teaching. I’ve taught as an adjunct at a couple of places in my career, but… So yeah, so I got my one-year appointment, and then there was somebody I knew, knew that the NSF was looking for somebody in the instrumentation area. I was an NMR spectroscopist. I got a job at NSF, and then I worked a couple of different jobs when I was there. And then my boss at NSF went out to NIH, and I followed him, and interestingly though, he left after three months. So one piece of career advice, don’t ever change jobs for a boss because the boss can leave and then you’re stuck.

But I did meet my wife at NIH. The best thing that ever happened, I met her in an elevator, and if anybody on the call wants to have a deeper conversation over a pint about that sometime, let me know. I’ll be pleased to share that story.

But yeah, so then, you know, I bounced around a little bit. Like you said, I worked at a university, it was a smaller university, right, so I did a lot of different things. And then I went in the private sector, I worked at PwC, and I helped do strategy for academic medical centres and research universities. Got an opportunity to come back to the University of South Carolina where I did my PhD work.

And then through, I would say, you know, a couple of life-defining moments, I looked for a job outside of the university and I applied to a job in the Chronicle, and here I am, 16 years later, and, you know, I feel really blessed. I mean, I get to work with great people, both on the staff here, but also within the organisations that we represent. And, you know, we’re just very fortunate as an organisation to have really dedicated member representatives who appreciate the work that we do and that they do. And so we’re a unique forum globally.

There are some other groups, some really great groups, by the way, like, you know, NCUB in the UK is a fantastic organisation that Joe Marshall runs, and there are other groups like that, right, who are doing really good work around university-industry partnerships.

And we’re just very fortunate, I am personally, to get to work with a great staff and just great member representatives on contemporary issues affecting collaborations.

I mean, as someone who has had the fortune to come to your conference before, it’s quite a high calibre of members that you have, and they were very intellectually stimulating conversations that I’ve had. So yeah, I can see why you would stick around.

Yeah, you know, we’re like a startup. I hear people say, oh, you know, after five or six years, what more can you contribute? But if you look at where we started, once again, it was around contracting issues. We still do a lot around contracting, but we do so much more now. And I’ll just give you an example.

Six months ago, we launched a consulting group as a subsidiary because we had members coming to us asking us to provide them services that we really couldn’t do through the membership, because if you go back, our membership model is sharing results. So if a company asks us to come in and do an assessment, it’s kind of hard to do that because, right, we share resources among members. So we created a wholly-owned subsidiary that’s a for-profit consulting company that has fantastic people that are practitioners, most of them, who could provide directed consulting services for members and non-members, to be honest with you, and that’s called UI Colab. So you know, we’re constantly moving forward and trying to find new ways to provide services to the community.

What is something that you wish the general public knew about this area, either your organisation or this kind of technology translation in general?

It’s important to know that universities don’t typically make products. You know, they don’t have things that they create and sell and that companies, when they work with universities, if they take an idea and they license it or, you know, the information is translated out, that it takes a lot of development to make it into a service or product downstream. And I think that’s really important to know.

The other thing, on a more positive note here, when we have a sense of urgency and a clear goal in mind, it’s amazing what we can accomplish, but that requires a desire to look past things that can be barriers or speed bumps and get to a solution, right? So we had that example with covid, right, where we didn’t worry about royalty rates at the time. It was like, people are dying, let’s figure out a solution to this and then we can worry about those things. And so I think that’s important to keep in mind. So that’s a positive.

And then I would say one thing that we’re seeing in the world today and I think is really, really important, while we’ve typically done research in an open manner where, you know, people collaborate from wherever they are, we’re seeing in the world that we live in today somewhat of a disaggregation of the research community based on different values. And this is impacting how we do research. It doesn’t mean that we should close research down within our own borders, but among like-minded countries and researchers in those countries, I think it’s really important that we work aggressively to address global challenges.

Yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, geopolitics can get in the way of these things, but then something like Horizon Europe, which is now out of even Canada as an associate member, and I think New Zealand as well. So I think it is happening. People are looking beyond their own region, thankfully, but it can be a delicate balance.

Right, but those are like-minded countries. I think that’s what’s important, right? It’s not geography as much as it is, do you share values?

Yeah, that’s very true. If you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change? Time, money, resources, staffing, everything?

Well, there’s a lot into that question. I think one thing that we’ve talked about is that we focus on what the goal is rather than trying to find reasons not to do things. And so one of my colleagues at a major corporation used to say that he could find nine people at universities who would tell him no before he got to somebody who could tell him yes.

And so at a very kind of granular level, I think it’s really important that we focus on what the goal is, and that requires that people in the trenches are people who really understand what the big picture is, and that we focus on achieving a desired outcome and not get caught down in the minutiae. And so that goes back to a little bit earlier, you know, our talking points about having enough talent in the space, right? I think that’s incredibly important, and I think if we could do that, having more people, I think it’s really valuable. One thing I would just point out about this.

And I know we’ve given a few examples over the course of discussion, but are there any successes that have come out of UIDP’s memberships that you would like to highlight?

I want to be careful. I don’t want to talk about too many specific companies and universities. What I can tell you, it’s really important to keep in mind, is companies and universities don’t collaborate. People from companies and people from universities that collaborate. And so there are many, many examples where people got to know each other at one of our events or by working on a project team together, and then that led to them doing a project or more than one project together. And so, you know, like I said, I don’t want to talk about a specific project, but we know that our learnings are being implemented because of relationships that were built at UIDP events and through UIDP projects.

And I think the proof is in the pudding. Our membership is pretty stable. People don’t come and go because they find value out of it. And so they learn from others in our community and they’re finding new partners. And I think that’s really important. And that’s something we never take for granted, by the way. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.

That sadly brings us almost to the end of the time we have. Is there anything else that you want people to know before we say goodbye?

Yeah. So obviously at UIDP, we focus on university-industry partnerships, and we’re very proud of the work that we do in the space. We are very supportive of university-industry partnerships. I do think there is somewhat of a misconception in the public that companies are spending significant amounts of their R&D budgets outside their own walls at universities or national labs or other places. And the reality is they spend a very small amount of their budget.

There’s not actually good data on this, but in some unscientific surveys that we’ve done, they contribute less than 1% of their overall R&D budget to places outside. And so if you spend $1bn on research, that’s less than $10m, right? So there are lots of ways that companies can help universities besides money. And it’s true the other way.

Universities can have a profound impact on companies beyond sponsored research. And so we’ve done work on something called the Partnership Continuum or the Engagement Continuum that looks at things beyond money. And so for a lot of folks, they think, “Oh, it’s about getting a contract to do sponsored research.” And that is important. There are certainly, you know, if you look at most universities in the aggregate, historically, 5% to 7% of university R&D expenditures in the US are from companies. Obviously, they’re getting a lot more from the federal government, but there are lots and lots of things that companies can do to support universities in their mission.

Companies have tremendous research capabilities, and they have tremendous assets, they have great facilities, they have really smart people, they have tons of materials that are only sometimes accessible through relationships. And so while there’s a focus on sponsored research or licensing, I think for the companies that are really looking to get the most out of their engagement and universities and the counterpart there, they’re looking beyond just transactions. They’re looking at holistic engagement where the true collaboration and partnership.

That’s a really nice call to action and really good closing words. Tony, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you so much for having me. I look forward to seeing you sometime soon.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).