Lawrence Dooley describes the strategy that academic principal investigators (PI) have to develop to ensure funding for discovery science as a ‘game of chess’: planning moves that meet the different agendas of stakeholders including the interests of industry, regional authorities and funding agencies, all while ensuring that they fulfil their career aspirations.
Conflicts can be destroy value
He comments: “Satisfying multiple interests is not straightforward. What is perceived as valuable by one stakeholder, in terms of science commercialisation, may be irrelevant or even value destroying for another stakeholder group; for example, a required delay in publication to facilitate industry interests can conflict with traditional norms and motivations in academic science and promotion opportunities.”
The tensions are increased by the change in focus of funding agencies.
“Increasing systemisation/professionalism in the funding agencies has seen some behave more like venture capitalists, with a focus on realising demonstrable value creation (even commercial return) to validate their decision to invest public funds.
“However, discovery science, especially that at the boundaries of existing science, is risky and within an academic research environment, failure is an integral part of the learning cycle,” he observes.
Tension between discovery science and KPIs
Pressure to hit KPI’s can sometimes result in research objectives tending toward more conservative ambitions in order to deliver and to enhance chances of securing future funding streams. Thus, this potential tension between goals of ‘blue-sky discovery’ and those of research efficiency can result in sub-optimal outcomes and a disconnect between stakeholder agendas.”
Dooley also explains that while smaller industry organisations may look to universities for knowledge transfer, their resource constraints often require returns in the short to medium time-window and hence interaction is often skewed towards contract, exploitation-focused research to solve near market challenges.
Larger companies with bigger budgets are often able to take a longer time perspective and support more exploratory blue-sky research, which offers the potential to feed the pipeline for future academic publications.
Alternative models for capturing private sector funding
While smaller industry organisations may have greater need for harnessing the knowledge and R&D of public research institutions, it is the exploratory research focus (dominated by larger industry with their own R&D capability) that aligns more closely to the academic interests and when such synergies can be realised then engagement can be mutually beneficial.
“Entrepreneurial PI’s are at the heart of the tapestry of University-Industry-Funding body engagement and their actions are strategic, seeking out synergies across the stakeholders and making trade-offs to sustain the viability of their research centre and its desired research trajectory. They will review their emerging discoveries relative to the requirements of industry partners, such as large pharma companies, and often tailor particular research streams to highlight opportunities for further future engagement or repositioning their research to fit with the next wave of funding calls” he explains.
“Progressive companies value early sight of discovery science and are often willing to pay for access to these types of briefings as a means of scanning the emerging domain and enhancing the channels of knowledge transfer and increased discovery research. Managed effectively it can provide an additional source of revenue for research institutions and a level of exclusivity to industry of time sensitive knowledge that benefits the objectives of both.”
Characteristics of a successful PI
Research by Dooley and his fellow authors James Cunningham and Connor O’Kane has revealed the characteristics of successful PIs and they make recommendations that would improve the outcomes for the translation of academic research to the wider community. When discussing research commercialisation, Dooley reflects: “the motivations of tenured academics are often linked with the professorial promotion path and achieved through bringing in funding to advance scientific knowledge, share their work for societal value through peer reviewed publications and developing the next generation of researchers. Spinning out a venture or advancing a licencing deal often has little impact in the realm of academic promotion given the metrics rewarded.”
To enhance research translation to industry through licensing and the advancement of University spin-outs, Dooley suggesting a different approach to the commercialisation of science.
“Leading academic researcher are not the best people to become CEO’s of spinout companies. While initially excited by starting their own company, the exploitative focus of such venture’s research often results in academics losing interest and returning to their University lab and its discovery-research focus.
“An alternative approach to advancing the spin-out commercialisation channel would be to develop the business attributes of the post-docs, alongside their research role. These individuals are hungry highly motivated/trained and seeking career opportunity since those within academia are so scarce.
“Such individuals, possessing a deep knowledge of the foundation technology, would be effective intermediaries for technology transfer and growing the ventures that are the vehicle for same. Where lead PI’s want to be involved then they are best placed as the Chief Scientific Officer or even a post on the advisory board.”
- Principal investigator (PI’): ‘shock absorber’ for quadruple helix value co-creation – Dr. Lawrence Dooley (University College Cork, Ireland) Dr. Conor O’Kane (University of Otago, New Zealand) Prof. James Cunningham (Northumberia University Newcastle, United Kingdom)
- Value capture mechanisms in publicly funded research – Conor O’Kane, Jing A. Zhanga, James A. Cunningham, Lawrence Dooley, Industrial Marketing Management, Volume 90, October 2020, Pages 400-416 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indmarman.2020.08.006
One of the co-authors has co-authored two major reports for the EU Commission:
The skills required for PIs: – James Cunningham, Paul O’Reilly, Daire Hooper, Daniel Nepelski and Vincent Van Roy (2020) EUR 30131 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020, ISBN 978-92-76-17304-5, doi:10.2760/709126, JRC120015
Roles and Responsibilities of Project Coordinators: A Contingency Model for Project Coordinator Effectiveness – James Cunningham & Paul O’Reilly (2019). (No. JRC117576). Joint Research Centre (Seville site).