University – Corporate Research Consortiums: Are More Safeguards Necessary…

Michael D. Moberly    November 21, 2011

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 faculty 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 the long legitimated hallmarks of academic freedom. On the other side of the debate stand those who encourage safeguards be put in place to limit, set parameters for, if not prohibit some of the at will or discretionary freedoms conveyed in the former view.

There’s nothing particularly new about these opposing views. They have been espoused in essentially the same context since the 16th century. Experience suggests there is little middle ground on which to frame a consensus, bar one. That is, to dispassionately factor into the university-corporate research protection equation the realities embedded in today’s hyper-competitive, predatorial, and winner-take-all global R&D environment.

This can be particularly interesting in instances in which faculty generated research and/or an inventions produce special insights and findings that lead to valuable (business) competitive advantages that may extend not just to the primary corporate (research) sponsor, but eventually to other companies in that industry sector.

So, a key question for corporate – university research collaborations are the above realities sufficiently persuasive to ensure the inclusion of information asset safeguards to mitigate university generated data/research be overly vulnerable to theft, infringement, or compromise stemming primarily from sophisticated state sponsored global business intelligence collection operations.

These are acts which, if even reasonably successful will most certainly dilute if not irrevocably impair the research’ strategic value to the inventor and research sponsor. It can also allow competitors (globally) to gain substantial advance insights to 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 venture capitalist (VC) will invariably pose to obtain a better sense of the usefulness and viability of the product or service being pitched. Routinely, they will ask a company representative to ’walk them through’ a-day-in-the-life of a (target market) company in which the product or service being pitched is not currently in use.

The VC’s follow-up questions will then be framed as:
• is there a noticeable difference?
• will the company be better off?
• if so, what and how will those differences manifest and are they exploitable insofar as delivering economic and/or competitive advantages to benefit the company?, i.e., to become more profitable?, gain/retain customers?, create efficiencies?, improve morale?, etc.

It’s conceivable that a comparable, but objective and dispassionate ’walk me through a day in the life’ approach would be useful to advance the time honored academic freedom debate about faculty generated research and inventions.

Key (objective) questions that could be posed then to a faculty researcher such as:
• consider their ability to sustain unchallenged control, use, ownership, and value of their invention throughout its value-life cycle
• what does the researcher, research sponsor, and the university consider to be minimum foundation(s) for retaining viable options for (future) licensing and/or technology transfer?

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