The NY Times is running an article about the end of the corporate lab and the growing partnerships between businesses and universities
around the country. A number of researchers are concerned about the
potential influence of business goals on universities’ strategic
research priorities, and the possible censoring of research
antithetical to a corporate sponsor’s business interests. Others claim
that the universities’ intellectual freedom is more liberated by
corporate involvement.

PAY me now, and pay me later.

That’s the new mind-set at some leading research universities in
dealing with business — and the essence of an emerging model for how
corporations can tap big brains on campus without having to pay their

Corporations have long been able to license intellectual property
from universities, but these deals are cumbersome to negotiate and tend
to work best when corporate researchers know exactly what they need to

They don’t always. Often, they explore scientific and technological
frontiers without a map. After blue-sky thinking and random
experimentation, they build new products without relying on neatly
defined patents or published scientific papers — the bread-and-butter
of academic knowledge production.

In the bygone days of innovation, large corporations — like RCA, Xerox and the old AT&T
— maintained internal laboratories like Bell Labs. These corporate labs
were essentially research universities embedded in private companies,
and their employees published academic papers, spoke at conferences and
even gave away valuable breakthroughs. Bell Labs, for instance, created
the world’s first transistor after World War II — and never earned a
dollar from the innovation.

Almost no corporate labs based on the Bell or Xerox model remain,
victims of cost-cutting and a new appreciation by corporate leaders
that commercial innovations may flow best when scientists and engineers
stick to business problems.

The obsession with marrying research and markets, while generally a
strength of American capitalism, leaves some needs unmet. To fill them,
“companies need boots on the ground at universities,” says Henry
Chesbrough, a business professor who studies innovation at the
University of California, Berkeley.

A vanguard group of universities is giving corporations greater
access to ivory-tower laboratories — for a price. Stanford has paired
with Exxon Mobil in a deal worth $100 million over 10 years. The University of California, Davis, is getting $25 million from Chevron. And Intel has opened collaborative laboratories with Berkeley, the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon.

The appeal of these arrangements is that “we get broad engagement
with universities,” says Andrew A. Chien, Intel’s director of research.
“Their researchers work on frontiers, in unexplored territory. We want

Intel hopes to learn more about scientific and technical
developments that might influence its business, even decades from now.
The company says it benefits from having its own employees rub
shoulders with professors, while gaining the chance to observe younger
talent in Ph.D. programs.

“You can view this as a pure pipeline,” says Mr. Chien, himself a former professor.

Jean Stéphenne, president of the vaccine division of GlaxoSmithKline,
the pharmaceutical company, says university partnerships with
corporations will grow “because technology is changing so rapidly.”
Even if companies have the resources to finance their own research and
identify the right academic problems to tackle, they usually don’t have
the time to assemble a staff to pursue these problems. Without help
from university professors, Mr. Stéphenne asks, “How can we cope?”

Some people doubt that formal partnerships between corporations and universities can deliver real benefits.

“Universities don’t innovate,” says Curtis R. Carlson, chief
executive of SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo
Park, Calif., that bought what remained of RCA’s lab. “Innovation means
you get it out so people can use it. The university is not going to
take it to the world.”

But corporations hope that universities can help them take innovations to the world faster and more efficiently. Last month, BP
pledged to spend $500 million over 10 years on alternative-energy
research to be carried out by a new Energy Biosciences Institute at
Berkeley, which will manage work done at a nearby Department of Energy
lab and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“This is a new model we’re working through in real time,” says Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of Berkeley.

CRITICS of corporate-university partnerships fear limits on
academic freedom or, worse, that companies might censor results that go
against their interests. The risk of such interference seems small,
however. Despite the large amount being offered by BP, the money will
be divided three ways; of Berkeley’s annual research budget of $500
million (nearly all from the federal government), BP will be
contributing less than 3 percent.

Under the terms of the partnership, meanwhile, Berkeley professors
are free to publish results of BP-funded research. The university also
will own the rights to any resulting intellectual property. BP would
even have to license that intellectual property, though payments are
capped and the company would get the first look at promising results.

The alternative to corporate funds is for universities to rely even
more on government funds. And that raises parallel issues in the minds
of some academics. The idea that government funding plays no role in
prioritizing research “is completely at odds with reality,” says
Michael Crowe, the president of Arizona State University.

The marriage of corporations and university researchers is still in
its early days. “In the decades ahead, we will see more differentiation
among universities in how they go about doing this,” Mr. Crowe says.

For universities, no matter what models emerge, the key is to deliver benefits to society and business.

“Will these partnerships produce products you won’t get from two
people in a garage?” Mr. Birgeneau asks. “We don’t know that yet. It is
an important question.”

Via NY Times