Here are three options that help corporates link up with universities and research labs to tackle research and development hurdles.

a line drawing of a researcher and a businesswoman talking to each other in a university lab

Halo, an online matchmaking platform for corporates and universities, this week announced an 18-month pilot programme with the US National Science Foundation to connect industry to materials science and engineering researchers at institutions that receive less than $50m in federal research expenditures. Its aim is to help boost commercialisation of inventions that might otherwise never get out of the lab.

It is the latest example of a growing number of programmes that help to bridge the gap between industry and university researchers. They are often keen to work together to use fresh-out-of-the-lab solutions to crack business problems and tackle R&D challenges which might be too costly to start internally from scratch. But creating university-industry partnerships is complicated.

First, there’s the issue of funding. A company, particularly a smaller business, may need the expertise of a university researcher but may not have the financial firepower to pay for it. Because it’s in the interest of a government to support knowledge transfer to industry, there’s often public funding available — in the UK, for example, innovation agency UKRI provides grants that cover between 50% and 75% of the costs involved, depending on the size of the corporate client.

And then there’s also the challenge of finding the right partner. How does a corporate know which university to go to with a specific problem? A local institution might be a natural place to start but what if there isn’t a research-intensive university nearby focused on the right technology field? There are matchmaking platforms to solve this issue, and we look at two approaches in the list below.

Once the right partner is found, there is the cultural challenge. Universities and corporates have fundamentally different missions. Corporates aim to make a profit from selling products or services. Generally speaking, universities want to educate and improve society. Negotiating between those different aims and values can create friction.

Several organisations have sprung up to help navigate companies and universities through the partnership process. Here are three organisations to be aware of, each with a unique approach to the problem.

1. Advice on partnership frameworks: UIDP

UIDP — originally known as the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership — is a US-based non-profit launched in 2006 to help industry and academia collaborate more effectively by developing frameworks for partnerships.

It was born 17 years ago from frustration over the length of time it can take to negotiate a sponsored research agreement, and this remains a theme for the organisation today.

Although it is incorporated in the US, the organisation has a growing number of international members and has held conferences, for example, in the UK and Japan, where it brings together people from both academia and industry to discuss, for example, how to shorten the time it takes to negotiate sponsored research agreements.

The organisation has expanded beyond its original contracting question. Today, it also concerns itself with talent development, talent exchange, government engagement and ecosystem development. For example, UIDP has helped share a common practice in the life sciences sector — industrial postdocs programmes — to other sectors to help them build a better pipeline for talent.

UIDP focuses mainly on sharing best practice. It does not serve as a middleman to negotiate any specific partnerships or technology development. In other words, there are no intellectual property concerns or nondisclosure agreements to sign.

Find out more about UIDP in our podcast interview with chief executive Tony Boccanfuso or on their website.

2. A platform to put RFPs out to universities: Halo

Halo, founded in 2020 after being incubated at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center, runs an online matchmaking platform that allows corporates to put out requests for proposals (RFPs) to a community of academic researchers and spinouts to help them solve complex R&D challenges they haven’t been able to crack with internal expertise alone.

These RFPs need to be about precise problems — a corporate cannot just ask, say, for general help with developing immunotherapies — and it’s open even for corporates that have not previously worked with universities. Oldcastle Infrastructure, which builds bridges and tunnels, for example, used Halo to connect with a researcher who had figured out how to remove nitrogen from stormwater runoff. Oldcastle had never done any external innovation before.

Some corporates can be reluctant to share details about their R&D challenges, so Halo also enables RFPs gated to researchers from a university with which they already have an agreement. They can also post anonymously or require researchers to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

For researchers, the platform is free and corporates pay an annual fee depending on the features they require.

Halo works with technology transfer offices so it can pass on opportunities to its researchers and stay on top of what its researchers are doing on the platform. It has developed AI software that analyses patent filings and grant applications to identify researchers who may have suitable technology but who may not yet be on Halo.

Learn more about the platform in our podcast interview with chief executive Kevin Leland or on their website.

3. A matchmaking platform for life sciences: Inpart

Inpart, based in France and run by chief executive Gilles Toulemonde, bills itself as an “end-to-end platform” to commercialise life sciences through university-industry partnerships.

It has a range of platforms, including Connect, a matchmaking platform for universities, researchers, corporates and investors. Connect is free for those who want to build a profile of interests to be matched with potential partners based on research priorities. A subscription fee adds more features, such as the ability to showcase specific assets. Corporates can also pay for Inpart’s bespoke R&D scouting for precise challenges, which involves Inpart’s in-house team of STEM experts hand-picking leads from universities.

Inpart also provides a customer relationship management (CRM) tool specifically built to facilitate collaborations and management of partnerships in the biopharma industry. The CRM is linked to a platform to manage conference delegates and allow them to set up meetings. If a meeting leads to more serious discussions about a partnership, both parties can seamlessly transition to Inpart’s CRM to facilitate a formal collaboration.

You can find out more about Inpart on its website, or one of the guest comments that members of the Inpart team have written for Global University Venturing over the years.

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).