Open innovation is now generally accepted as providing companies with a broad, long-term strategy for developing new technologies and exploring new markets. Frequently, an open-innovation program includes efforts to reach out to external researchers, in some cases by partnering with research-intensive universities. These partnerships may be aimed at solving specific problems or at providing windows on emerging technologies. While they can offer fruitful ground for identifying and developing innovations, these relationships do require careful management to ensure both parties' goals for the partnership are met.
Syngenta AG, a global agribusiness company that markets seeds and pesticides, has developed a useful and effective mechanism for managing its university partnerships. Syngenta-sponsored university innovation centers (UICs) work to develop new technology platforms that can help move the company into new business opportunities. Since 2007, Syngenta has established six UICs across six universities or research institutes and three countries, each focused on a different set of technology opportunities. The UICs offer Syngenta another route for acquiring external technological capabilities, in addition to other, more traditional acquisition mechanisms, such as licensing technologies and collaborating with other kinds of external partners. At the same time, the UICs enable Syngenta to exploit these capabilities more readily by exploring different routes to market early in the development process. Where acquired technologies must usually then be fitted into a business model, Syngenta-sponsored UICs work with the company's business development teams to identify and validate a business model for the proposed technology before significant resources are invested in technical innovation. The technical work can then be shaped in development to match the requirements of the validated business model. The benefit of this approach is that the company can move its technical innovations in the most innovative and lucrative directions and minimize risk associated with developing business models to fit technology.
Syngenta's first UIC, established in partnership with the University of Manchester (UK) in 2007 to study the possible use of sensors in agribusiness applications, offers an example of a successful strategic partnership between business and academia. Known as the Syngenta Sensors Centre (SSC), the UIC has helped Syngenta explore new technologies, manage risk, and generate innovation.
Accessing University Knowledge
Various indicators suggest that knowledge transfer between universities and commercial firms is accelerating. This includes a rising numbers of patents filed by universities, increasing numbers of university researchers engaging in academic entrepreneurship, growing numbers of university spin-off companies, the growing share of industry funding in university income, and the diffusion of technology transfer offices and other knowledge transfer activities initiated through national or regional innovation support measures (Nelson 2001; Shane 2005). There is also abundant evidence to suggest that the process of knowledge transfer between universities and industry occurs through multiple channels, including informal contacts, personnel mobility, consulting relationships, and joint research projects (Arundel and Geuna 2004).
At the same time, recent changes in corporate R&D models from centralized R&D functions to R&D divisions tied to particular products or businesses--have led to a shift in the nature of university-business relationships (Coombs and Georghiou 2002). Moving away from large portfolios of relationships with individual academics, many firms now establish long-term relationships with entire university departments; these arrangements typically cover equipment provision, staff posts, and graduate student recruitment. For example, Rolls-Royce Aero Engines has consolidated about 300 small, dispersed university projects into 28 large "university technology centers" (UTCs). …