Challenges for university-industry collaboration in 2021: What are R&D teams up against?

2020 was a strange and challenging start to the decade. Reports of so many scientific endeavours being put on hold last year make it easy to be disappointed with the perceived lack of progress. However, the disruption presented many unique situations that allowed the scientific community to flourish, either by repurposing existing technologies or developing new solutions faster than ever before. In this article, we’ll highlight some of the key findings from our 2021 annual survey, looking deeper into the effects of the pandemic and what R&D teams are going to need to tackle in the coming year.

Despite the global chaos, the spotlight on industry-academia collaborations shone brighter with the successful Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at the forefront. While 2020 has shown it can be difficult to predict the year ahead, plans can be made to ensure we all make the most of 2021.

In total, 108 decision-makers from industry R&D teams who use our university-industry matchmaking platform responded to the survey from a range of sectors including life sciences, aerospace, defence, animal health, and telecommunications. The survey had an international reach with respondents from four continents – many from across North America and Europe, with representation from companies based in Asia and Australasia, including Japan, Korea and Australia. The responses come from individuals working in open innovation and R&D teams whose roles specifically focus on collaborating with universities.

What are R&D teams up against?

From pressures to prioritise short-term projects that use less resources and have faster innovation cycles, to isolation within an organisation from wider company goals, research and development teams face many unique challenges that come in the way of achieving their goals of delivering innovation, keeping competitive, and creating new products of value to customers, patients and communities.

The responses from our 2021 survey suggest that many R&D teams face problems finding new university technologies and academic partners that align with their specific technical requirements. Other significant challenges that R&D teams face include limitations around budgets, time and resources. Technology transfer teams engaged in working with industry have also indicated that they face similar challenges.


What are R&D teams up against? - IN-PART blog - Figure 2
Figure 1: Data from our 2021 Annual Survey with responses from 108 R&D professionals. The graph categorises the key challenges/roadblocks identified by each R&D professional in their role in response to the query asked as an open question, with some respondents identifying multiple issues.


When asked about the biggest challenges facing their team or company in 2021, there was a range of responses from our R&D community. The most common concerns relate to the changing and unpredictable business environment that world events such as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have caused. Many are concerned about successfully adapting to the new challenges that organisations face in the wake of these events, however, a greater number of teams are simply trying to maintain or build upon their previous activities.


What would you say is the biggest challenge for your team/company in 2021? Figure 2
Figure 2: Data from our 2021 Annual Survey with responses from 108 R&D professionals. The graph categorises the key challenges identified by each R&D professional for their team/company in response to the query asked as an open question, with some respondents identifying multiple issues.

How do R&D teams think the university-industry relationship could be improved?

While it’s easy to identify what’s wrong, it’s more productive to try and find solutions and improvements. With that in mind, with our annual survey, we aimed to find new ways of moving forward by asking what R&D professionals think could be improved about industry-academia relationships.

Over half of our survey respondents would prioritise improving relationships with academia by having a better understanding of each other’s needs and expectations when approaching conversations about collaborating, which is also something that was also highlighted as a priority by technology transfer teams in universities. The perennial patent vs publish debate is often a source of contention, but it’s about aiming to find a middle ground that’s mutually beneficial to both parties when there’s a clear alignment of research interests and expertise.

Other suggestions from R&D teams included universities providing a more defined outline of the potential applications and routes to commercialisation for a research project, as well as better external support, and improved communication between the two sectors.


If you could improve one thing about the relationship between industry and academia, what would it be? - Figure 3
Figure 3: Data from our 2021 Annual Survey with responses from 108 R&D professionals. The graph categorises the potential improvement suggested by each R&D professional in response to the query asked as an open question, with some respondents identifying multiple areas for improvement.


How has the pandemic affected R&D teams working with universities?

In addition to the usual challenges that R&D teams face, the pandemic has changed the way companies approach innovation. A paradigm shift the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered is in online communication. During the early stages of the pandemic, major conferences were called off, closely followed by on-campus meetings, restricting the ability for companies to maintain some of their regular means of contact with universities.

What are R&D teams up against? - IN-PART blog - Figure 4
Figure 4: Data from our 2021 Annual Survey with responses from 108 R&D professionals. The charts show the impact of COVID-19 on R&D teams in terms of their collaborations and research priorities.

Results from our survey indicate that 62% of industry R&D teams have found that their ability to collaborate with universities and academic institutions has been negatively affected during the pandemic. What’s more, 36% have found that projects in areas not-related to Covid-19 have been deprioritised. There was a similar distribution of university responses to this question, meaning that both industry and academia are observing similar effects on research priorities and collaboration.

Many factors have contributed to this, including the disruption that remote working initially caused, reduced access to labs for ‘non-priority’ industry researchers not working on Covid-19, resulting in pausing collaborations and project development. Staggered and varying worldwide lockdowns have disrupted supply chains and made it difficult to continue with projects, even when back in the lab.

Shifting consumer demand and behaviour has followed the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, affecting funding opportunities and R&D budgets, making it difficult for universities and industry to engage with collaborations in the rapidly changing environment.

However, there are silver linings. Despite the disruption that the pandemic has caused to R&D-driven companies engaging in university-industry collaborations, there have been positives. Many industry professionals have found improved efficiency in communication due to the increased use of digital communication within universities.

What’s more, the increase in digital communication has reduced the number of barriers in place for international collaborations which have become more accessible as more people engage with virtual meetings and conferences. Increased digital engagement has ensured that virtual communication is now the standard, which has enabled conversations to happen faster as responses are instant and meetings are easier to schedule.


What are R&D teams up against? - IN-PART blog - Figure 5
Figure 5: Data from our 2021 Annual Survey with responses from 108 R&D professionals. The categories identified from the responses describe the positive impacts on university-industry collaboration from COVID-19, with some respondents identifying multiple positives.


Our 2021 annual survey also took the temperature of the academic community. For insights about what challenges the technology transfer teams are facing in 2021, jump through to the companion piece for this article, ‘Challenges for university-industry collaboration in 2021: What are technology transfer teams up against?’.


Written by Frances Wilkinson. Edited by Alex Stockham.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2021: ‘Challenges for university-industry collaboration in 2021: What are R&D teams up against?’

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