Untapped sources of innovation

R&D-minded companies will often build relationships with the world’s most prestigious universities to secure early access to leading research. Some firms concentrate their efforts, forming close ties with local institutes. But when it comes to finding the best research partners for collaborative R&D, companies relying solely on these strategies ignore many untapped sources of innovation.

Through Discover, we work with R&D teams focussed on external academic collaboration at companies across a variety of disciplines (from Bayer and GSK Consumer Healthcare to Murata Manufacturing and Air Products). Each has a unique approach engaging with our network of universities, which extends across 1,000+ institutes. And with over 4,000 unique opportunities identified for companies using Discover so far, we can see exactly which academic institutes garner the most attention from industry.

Universities outside the top-100 have plenty to offer

To take a recent campaign as an example, we worked with an international pharmaceutical company to run a Request for Proposals campaign through our network, encouraging academics to submit new research proposals across two broad disease areas: neonatology and respiratory disease. It proved very popular, generating 102 proposals from 77 institutes.

Using the QS world rankings as a metric of research output for each institute submitting proposals to Discover, we can see in figure 1 that while the largest and most prestigious institutes in our network were engaged (rank 1-100), research and teaching hospitals, specialist or private research institutions, and smaller universities that don’t feature in the QS ranking, also submitted a high number of relevant proposals.

The number of proposals selected by the client remained broadly consistent across institutes regardless of their ranking. Over half of the proposals selected for further engagement by the company came from universities outside of the top 200. This suggests that both research quality and our client’s interests were well complemented by proposals, not only from highly ranked university teams, but also those in unranked and lower-ranking institutes, highlighting the importance for industry to engage academics in lower-tier research institutions (and vice-versa).

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Figure 1. Proposals submitted and engaged with for one Discover RFP campaign. The graph shows the number of research proposals submitted received (blue bars) grouped by the corresponding QS world rankings. Bars in red show the number of submissions that the client subsequently selected for next stage discussions. ‘Unranked’ is categorised by no entry within the QS world ranking.

Raising the profile of lower-ranked universities

The spread of engagement across institutes of varying rankings isn’t an anomaly. We saw a similar pattern of engagement when we extended our analysis to look at all previous Discover campaigns. Figure 2 shows the cumulative data for all Discover campaigns to date. It’s immediately clear that projects from universities outside the top tier receive a disproportionate level of engagement from companies using the service.

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Figure 2. The number of introductions to universities and academics institutes requested by industry clients for every 100 submissions provided by universities across the ranking spectrum.

A nuance to this finding is the difference in submissions by universities in the top 50 QS ranking in response to Discover campaigns, who have submitted roughly double the number of submissions as either of the other two groups (50-200 and 200-1000+). But despite that, our data suggests that outputs from the lower-ranked institutions are of just as great interest to the world’s top companies seeking academic collaborators.

This trend supports our hypothesis that Discover is actively enabling greater visibility of research taking place in smaller universities, while also highlighting cutting-edge, novel research also taking place in top tier institutions.

Overlooked sources of innovation

It might be said that many smaller universities with relevant research lack the funding to attend international partnering events, especially if they have too few opportunities in their technology portfolio to make attendance a financially viable strategy for industry engagement. Similarly, for companies, initiating long-term partnerships with smaller universities is difficult at scale, owing to the challenge of maintaining thousands of relationships.

Just as no single company has a monopoly on good ideas, the best academic research can be found at institutes large and small from all around the world. Keeping track of the innovations of an increasingly globalised and outward-facing network of academic institutions is exceptionally difficult for companies of all sizes. But our analysis shows that businesses are increasingly willing to explore research opportunities outside of their usual networks to capitalise on the global expertise made accessible by services like Discover.


Written by Josh Brown, Senior Research Officer with IN-PART’s Discover team.

Edited by Alex Stockham, IN-PART’s Communications Manager.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed ,  IN-PART Publishing Ltd. 2019, ‘Untapped sources of innovation’.

About Discover:

IN-PART’s Discover service is used by companies wanting to search for innovation, expertise and solutions from academia, to either increase or enhance their current services and products, or to find practical solutions to their business and research challenges.

If you have questions about using Discover to connect with the global academic community, send a message to our team.

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Image attribution & credit:

Header image: Joao Silas, Unsplash, CC0


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