Written By: Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.
When I finished my PhD, I knew that I did not want to do a postdoc.
I saw how miserable the postdocs at my university were, and I did not want to follow that path.
Plus, there were not enough tenure positions to support all the graduating PhDs.
I knew that doing a postdoc could ruin my science industry career options.
A career in industry was clearly the choice for me.
But, I wasn’t sure how to leave academia.
I looked toward industry and I saw new discoveries becoming new technologies that were brought to market to help people.
But, I felt very disconnected from this type of industry research.
I felt that what was going on in the biotech/pharma industry was completely different from what I was doing in my academic lab.
It seemed like there were no similarities between the research goals of an academic institution and those of a biotech organization.
I liked what I was seeing outside of academia, but I was nervous about leaving.
Academia was all I had known.
But, I began exploring industry positions and setting up informational interviews.
I was surprised to find that there is significant overlap between the scientific projects at universities and industry companies.
I had believed that there was almost no fundamental research being conducted by the biotech industry, but the reality was quite different.
I discovered that most universities have some sort of ongoing collaboration with industry.
Industry was a lot closer to academia than I had thought.
I learned that these industry-academia collaborations offered opportunities for STEM PhDs like me to maintain a connection to both academia and industry.
This was definitely a PhD industry position I wanted to learn more about.
Why Industry-Academia Collaborations are Beneficial To PhDs
In the past year, according to the NIH, federal funding has dropped by nearly $8 billion dollars.
That means the already scarce research finding is going to become even harder to come by.
According to the NIH, the grant success rate will drop to only 13%.
Academia is broken.
Professors are stressed and face a terrible funding crisis, postdocs have to deal with horribly low salaries and poor job security, and PhD students are overworked and told lies about their career options.
However, there is a growing trend of academic-industry collaborations that offer a solution to the funding crisis.
By partnering with industry, the discoveries and technologies that come out of academia can be developed into viable products and brought to market.
This creates money that can then be reinvested into academic research.
According the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), in just one year, the sales generated through agreements between industry and universities was $28.7 billion.
And, the benefits of an industry-academia collaboration go beyond the money.
If you are fortunate enough to be in a laboratory that has a partnership with industry, then you might have the opportunity to participate in collaborative projects with industry partners.
This can be a great way of pursuing research projects that have direct industrial application, while developing an understanding of how industry R&D projects function.
It will also be an excellent opportunity to establish professional relationships and network with industry insiders.
These relationships will be valuable when you are finished with your PhD or postdoctoral research and wish to transition to industry.
Often, students or postdocs involved in these R&D collaborations are hired by the industry partner, as their knowledge of the project proves to be a major asset for the company.
So, what are the types of possible collaborations?
4 Types Of Academia-Industry Collaborations That Benefit PhDs
Not all industry-academia collaborations are the same.
The ways in which academic organizations form partnerships with industry can vary in scope, size, and structure.
Each type of collaboration offers a unique opportunity for PhDs.
PhDs in industry and academia are involved in the collaboration and often, another PhD is responsible for facilitating and maintaining the partnership.
These partnerships are certainly creating new roles for STEM PhDs and postdocs.
If you are interested in both academic research and the commercialization of innovation, or wish to be involved in collaborative projects, then you might be interested in positions involving industry-academia alliances.
This functional area offers both laboratory-oriented roles as well as roles not limited to bench work.
Here are 4 types of industry-academia collaborations that benefit PhDs…
1. Licensing of university technologies to an industry partner.
Academic researchers have been conducting research with translational value for a long time.
However, until the initiation of the Bayh-Dole Act, it was not possible for universities to generate revenue from inventions and intellectual property (IP) that originated from federally funded academic research.
This act enabled commercialization of university research and opened a new era.
Universities established Technology Transfer Offices and began licensing academic technologies to industry, which led to the generation of significant revenue.
The licensing of available technologies to industry partners through the Office of Technology Transfer continues to be the traditional path of commercialization for a university’s inventions.
Working for the Office of Technology Transfer is a great industry position for a PhD who wants to be connected to both academia and industry.
The technology transfer officers promote available interesting university technologies and facilitate the process of patenting and licensing these technologies to prospective industry partners.
Licensing deals represent a major source of revenue for all leading universities in the US.
2. Forming strategic industry R&D collaborations with an academic department or group of researchers.
The second type of industry-academia partnership that is becoming increasingly more common is strategic R&D partnerships between researchers in academia and researchers in industry.
Two major factors are primarily responsible for this rising trend.
Academic researchers, who are facing increasing scarcity of federal grants, see strategic partnerships with industry as a new avenue for funding.
On the other hand, collaborations with academia offer the biopharma industry a more cost-effective path to sourcing innovation to boost their shrinking pipeline.
There is much more interaction and sharing of information between industry and academia than you are led to believe.
These partnerships have given researchers in academia not only another source of funding, but they also offer a new avenue for translation of academic research.
And the benefits go both ways.
By partnering with academia, companies get access to fundamental research that has the potential to develop into ground-breaking therapies in the future.
Most academic-industrial R&D collaborations focus on highly innovative projects.
Examples include: MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Moon Shots program in immuno-oncology (which enabled them to partner with major pharmaceutical companies), and the Dana-Farber Cancer Center’s expertise in clinical models and access to large patient population (which initiated a collaboration that led to the development of a novel lung cancer therapy).
By investing in fundamental research, industry partners can be involved in a research project from early on, rather than only licensing the innovation at a later stage through the Office of Technology Transfer.
3. Founding consortiums and innovation centers.
Companies and academia, often with help from local governing bodies, can form innovation centers, consortiums, and incubators to facilitate academia-industry collaboration.
The creation of these centers for research also provides the ideal environment for universities to create spinoff companies.
Formation of innovation centers or consortiums represent a more robust and extensive model of collaboration between industry and academia, as creating a whole new research center is a large investment.
Major international pharmaceutical companies such as GSK, Astrazeneca, and Pfizer are involved in consortiums or innovation centers.
Pfizer supports the Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTIs), through which it aims to establish large-scale collaboration with multiple academic centers, and Astrazeneca has a formal collaboration with the Academic Drug Discovery Consortium (ADDC).
The ADDC is composed of about 1,000 scientific professionals distributed across over 100 universities, located in 35 countries.
Keeping in line with the Open Innovation (OI) model as a part of this collaboration, Astrazeneca will provide access to their high-quality compound library to facilitate the identification and screening of potential drug candidates, through partnerships with academic researchers.
The creation of innovation centers and consortiums facilitates large-scale academia-industry collaboration, indicative of the growing trend of these types of partnerships.
4. Gaining access to industry compounds, biologics, and research tools for academic research.
With more companies adopting the OI model, it has become easier for academic researchers to access industry compounds and/or biologics.
These resources can be used in academic preclinical research as part of R&D partnerships.
In these collaborations, academic researchers get access to compounds, cell-lines, or biologics to conduct new research, and the industry partner benefits from new data related to the compounds or biologics which they own.
These large companies support basic university research and benefit from any discoveries made using the resources that they own.
The culture of OI has increased collaboration between academia and industry. It is shaping how pharma does R&D and is encouraging academic professionals to adapt and change. Independent academic investigators have become more likely to participate in collaborative projects with pharma, and are more inclined to conduct transferable research. The Office of Technology Transfer, found at most universities, has become an integral part of this ecosystem. There has been increased focus on forming collaborative startups where both industry and academia can contribute. All these new developments are shaping the future trends of the life science industry and creating new career opportunities for PhDs and postdocs.
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