University – Corporate Research: Are Safeguards Necessary Now?

Michael D. Moberly   March 11, 2010

Within the university research community, there remain spirited and polarizing debates about the openness in which research is conducted, that is, the freedom and ability of researchers to disseminate, communicate, collaborate, and publish at will, which incidentally, have long been recognized as the hallmarks of university-based research.

On one side of that debate stand those who favor retaining those legitimate hallmarks of academic freedom, while on the other side of that debate stand those who encourage safeguards be put in place to limit, set parameters for, if not prohibit some of the at will – discretionary freedoms conveyed in the former view, particularly in instances in which the research will likely produce special insights, outcomes, and findings that potentially carry significant (business) competitive advantages that may extend not just to the primary corporate (research) sponsor, but eventually to other U.S. companies and organizations in that sector.

There’s nothing particularly new about these diametrically opposing views, as they have existed in essentially the same format since the 16th century.  Regardless, whichever side of this argument one may be inclined to embrace, my experience in this arena suggests there is little middle ground on which to frame – reach consensus, bar one.  That is, the opportunity to objectively and dispassionately factor into the university-corporate research equation the realities embedded in today’s intangible asset based, hyper-competitive, aggressive, increasingly predatorial, and winner-take-all global R&D environment. 

So, the question may be, do these (aforementioned) realities support the inclusion of specific safeguards to the university-corporate research equation beyond those that predominantly IT (security) oriented?  The objective is to prevent-reduce the vulnerability-probability that the sponsored research will be vulnerable to insider theft, infringement, or the ‘always on’ and incredibly sophisticated global business/competitor intelligence operations.  In other words, acts that, if even reasonably successful, will dilute and/or impair the research’ strategic value to its sponsor and/or allow, inadvertently or otherwise, competitors (globally) to gain advance insights that permit them to achieve economic, competitive, and market entry advantages.

Walk me through-a-day-in-the-life of university research…An analogy may be useful as a potential starting point to advance this principled tug-of-war.  For example, when company representatives go before a venture capital firm to seek funding, one of the series of questions (scenarios) a VC will invariably pose to obtain a better sense of the usefulness and viability of the product or service being pitched, is to ask a company representative to ‘walk me through’ a-day-in-the-life of a (target market) company in which the product or service is absent.  And then ‘walk me through’ a-day-in-the-life of that same company after the product or service becomes operational.  The VC’s follow-up questions will then be framed as w I see a difference?, will the company be better off?, if so, what and how will those differences manifest?, and how will those differences be exploitable to benefit the company?, i.e., to become more profitable?, gain/retain customers?, create efficiences?, improve morale?, etc.

It’s not inconceivable that a comparable, but objective and dispassionate ‘walk me through a day in the life’ approach would be useful to advance the time honored debate about university research.  Key (objective) questions that could be posed then to researchers/scientists are (1.) consider their ability to sustain unchallenged control, use, ownership, and value of their research throughout its value-life cycle,  and (2.) what do they, their university, and research sponsor consider to be minimum foundation(s) for retaining viable options for (future) licensing and/or technology transfer?

(In addition to being an information asset protection specialist, Mr. Moberly remains a consistent researcher and consultant on these matters which began while he was a member of the faculty at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from 1982-2002.)




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