Collaborative research across disciplines and borders is crucial to solving the world’s most pressing and complex problems. Embracing a diversity of perspectives can lead to more robust and impactful research outcomes, with region-specific expertise becoming increasingly important in ensuring research leverages experiences from ‘ground zero’ that may differ from counterparts elsewhere in the world.
However, for many in the industry, knowing where to start when looking for an out-of-region research partner can be a daunting task. Many in-house R&D teams in smaller to mid-sized organisations simply lack the capacity to search for available and verified research globally for hours on end. It's also costly. In the UK, the government introduced tax relief on R&D projects in SME enterprises to try and ease the pressure.
But, even for those with more resources to hand, opting for partners within their existing network can seem an easier and more straightforward path. But this perceived barrier shouldn’t put teams off looking further afield for new research and insights to propel the next best innovation. A wider diversity of thinking, as well as an increased breadth of research and holistic outcomes, can result from global collaboration, and so barriers must come down to encourage more of these connections.
Uncovering hidden gems
An obvious benefit to companies looking further afield for a research partner is an increased chance of uncovering hidden gems and cutting-edge research not yet tapped into. Discovering the elusive needle in the haystack can have huge commercial benefits for industry organisations constantly under pressure to deliver new innovations and products in a fast-paced competitive landscape. This can be seen in the case of the development of sustainable materials, where a firm has been able to make initial breakthroughs by uncovering unpublished research.
The key to this is beginning conversations as soon as possible with academic institutions. Waiting until a particular project becomes published, or more ‘known’ can mean being beaten to the punch in securing a partnership. For academics, there are also clear benefits to embracing industry partnerships earlier on in the research process, including boosts to funding and securing the longer-term feasibility of the project.
Gradually encouraging closer conversations between industries and academia is a strong start in the mission for research-driven innovation, but in-house R&D teams are also facing their own challenges. Pouring through multiple market research, conference reports, and scientific publications from different countries is a resource-heavy and time-intensive process. This is especially the case when working outside of one’s own geographic location, where having confidence in the quality of research is lower due to unfamiliar academic territory or lack of an existing network. A study published in the International Journal of Innovation and Technology Management discovered that quality control was one of the key difficulties facing global R&D projects, with differences highlighted in expectations between home country and foreign R&D teams when it came to considering the end-consumer-readiness level in particular.
This issue is perhaps why we see so many organisations opting for R&D relationships with universities that are close by geographically. However, trying to force a relationship with an academic institution purely based on its location that isn’t specialised in a particular industry or niche will only lead to poor outcomes. The best innovations come where the partnership feels authentic and mutually beneficial, and so companies have much to benefit from leveraging expertise beyond their doorstep. This is why it’s so crucial for organisations to spend time building networks outside of their specific region and considering how they can best push out global calls for research to encourage greater diversity of responses.
Navigating cultural differences
Despite the clear benefits, many industry organisations remain hesitant about embracing partnerships with academic institutions more generally. Differing internal cultures have long been a primary challenge in any partnership between industry and academia, and this can be intensified in instances of cross-border collaboration. An academic study showed that industry organisations are primarily driven by tight deadlines and roadmaps and need to demonstrate commercial outcomes from the outset, such as profitability. Universities are driven by theory. Academics typically approach projects with a more exploratory outlook and are more process-driven focus, which equates to a steadier pace of work.
Mismatched time zones and potential language barriers can further disrupt the search for research partners, but this journey towards innovation needs to be balanced with reporting back to senior stakeholders.
However, these challenges can be overcome by setting clear expectations from both parties from the outset and working to foster a culture of mutual respect. And if the last few years have demonstrated anything, it’s that working with remote partners is more doable than ever before, with a myriad of technologies at our fingertips to keep us connected.
Looking in places where others haven’t
We’re being inspired by more and more examples of effective, global industry-academia collaboration. Biotech companies that are searching for new approaches to directly target the immune system to strengthen its response to cancer have already made use of global insights to drive new approaches. Cancer charities, including Cancer Research UK, have also taken steps to partner more closely with the industry.
By being able to access thousands of contacts in universities and research institutes from numerous countries around the world, innovation in potentially life-saving strategies can be encouraged. For example, when researching the treatment of rare diseases, it is important to gain as much experience as possible when tackling an issue which can be extremely uncommon.
If anything positive came out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it showed that close collaboration between the life sciences industry and academia around the world brought lightning focus to the development of life-saving vaccines, which were created in less than a year. Where there is a will to make a difference, there is a way.
Entities from both sides must connect on a global scale. This way, academic institutions can be more readily available for potential partnerships, and organisational R&D teams can uncover global hidden gems while streamlining their scouting process. The end result is faster and more meaningful progress in solutions that ultimately benefit humans and the planet.