January 30, 2006

Colleges, companies coordinate innovation approach

Author: Jay Lyman

Both universities and companies gain from collaborative research and development efforts in a number of areas, including open source software, but the challenge of agreeable terms for the work and its results often hang up innovation. A new set of collaborative principles produced by universities including Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and companies including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Intel, aims to speed the process and keep the cutting edge work at the edge.

The four companies and seven US universities agreed on guiding principles to avoid revisiting the same issues and negotiations each time they collaborate on research for open source software. The companies and universities agreed to make intellectual property arising from selected research collaboration available free of charge for commercial and academic use, and established a set of guidelines addressing the rights of participants and the public.

Also contributing to and promoting the collaboration principles was the Kauffman Foundation, an organization focused on fusing education, business, and entrepreneurship in the US. Kauffman vice president of advancing innovation Lesa Mitchell said the latest collegiate-corporate effort is needed to keep America's tech leaders from looking to foreign institutions for innovation.

"The barrier between universities and industry in this country has grown to such proportions that certain industry players prefer to fund collaborations with universities outside the US, therefore hurting our innovation competitiveness," she said. "This project represents the Foundation's interest in defining alternative pathways to advance innovation and entrepreneurship."

IBM worldwide manager of university relations and innovation programs Lou Masi told NewsForge the "grand challenge" of the effort is greater collaboration and bringing it to market more quickly. "We've got to make the process more fluid," he said.

Masi explained that while colleges and companies may have made strides in working together on software and other areas, the details and contract agreements can stall the work, as well as the benefits to both.

"When negotiating can take six to nine months or 18 months, it's no longer relevant," he said. "After 18 months, it's no longer bleeding edge. We'd prefer 18 days -- that's swinging for the fence."

Georgia Tech associate vice provost for research Jilda Garton said the new principles will assist universities in delivering their research and development to the market. "Anything that makes the relationship go smoother and helps faculty gain access to funding or relevant problems, anything that lowers the barrier is a good thing," she said.

Garton said the principles, which help universities and companies avoid repeating negotiations with every development, allow both sides to focus more on the work and less on the details of how they collaborate.

"We're not staffed for months and months of negotiations," she said. "We need to get on with it."

Masi said the principles, born out of a recent university and industry Innovation Summit at the Georgetown University Law Center, were a response to innovative collaboration efforts that grow stale because of contractual details. "We realized the needle was not moving significantly enough in 2005," he said, referring to work with HP, and then other companies and universities.

Kauffman's Mitchell indicated the framework was needed to leverage the work taking place at America's colleges. "The well of innovation at our nation's universities is deep," she said. "But it clearly depends upon research faculty identifying innovative research opportunities that can lead to commercial outcomes. Faculty collaborations with industry through sponsored research, consulting, or other means provide faculty with commercial awareness that in fact hones their opportunity recognition skills."

Masi explained the principles cover a "university-industry research continuum," which places collaboration along a spectrum of open and closed models, including open intellectual property, joint IP, and private IP. He said the principles will serve as a guiding template for contracts, which may or may not focus on openness.

"This announcement and this work is about open, but it's also and just as much about options," he said, indicating that some collaborative work may not be appropriate for openness from either universities' or companies' perspectives. "When you build these options, you instantly communicate where in the continuum you want to be. What this really does is accelerate through the options to fast track the work, so we don't spend months and years in negotiations."

Georgia Tech's Garton said the principles will help universities and companies working together to avoid wasting time on contractual work that has already been done. "It really just says when we're engaging on research, here's how we do it and we don't have to engage in discussions again and again," she said. "It will make things go better and faster."

Masi added the players involved hope to apply the principles beyond collaboration on open source software and IT, to fields such as pharmaceutical and biotech research. "This takes us to the next step," he said. "We want to use this, and you'll see examples. Our real next step is pervasive acceptance of the principles."

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