How do firms reach out to foreign universities? Inventors’ personal characteristics and the multinational structure of firms

Claudio Fassio, Aldo Geuna and Federica Rossi

Collaborations with universities beyond national borders represent a common practice among firms, in particular when it comes to large multinational enterprises (MNEs) screening for science-based knowledge. Yet, there have been very few investigations of the factors that facilitate international collaborations between firms and universities. In particular there is scarce knowledge about the role of the individuals that are directly involved in the development of new products and processes, namely the industry inventors employed by firms.

International knowledge linkages can be organized in quite different ways. At one extreme of this categorization is the so-called “global pipelines” model, where knowledge flows through the intra-corporate structure of large MNEs, across their networks of subsidiaries. At the other extreme are instead the personal linkages of individuals, who interact based on some common ground that allows them to decrease the transaction costs involved in their interactions. This can be the case of ethnic communities of highly skilled workers scattered across different countries, or that of scientific communities of individuals working for different public institutions across the world.

In our study recently published in Journal of World Business, we propose a micro-founded theoretical framework that introduces the role of personal and organizational factors as drivers of international collaborations between firms and universities. We propose that international collaborations will be more likely when firm-based inventors had an international career, when they earned their education abroad and when they have familiarity with the norms of open science, as shown by their publications. We also propose that the global pipelines orchestrated by MNEs play a role: inventors working for MNEs should be more likely to engage in international collaborations with universities. Finally, we suggest that personal characteristics play an important role also among inventors working for MNEs, precisely because also MNEs can benefit from the boundary spanning activities of inventors who have international education and career backgrounds and/or who are better acquainted with academic communities.

We rely upon a mixed method approach that combines an original survey of 915 firm-based inventors (individuals employed by firms who are named as inventors on one or more patents) based in the Italian region of Piedmont, and a set of in-depth interviews with 5 individuals that are part of the same sample. Distinguishing between national (based in the same region or in another region in Italy), and international universities (in Europe or in North America), we analyze to what extent interactions with universities in these different locations are enabled by: (i) the personal attributes of firm-based inventors, related to the inventors’ past education, career, and engagement in scientific research, and (ii) organizational factors related to the inventors’ current employment, in particular for those employed by MNEs. We find that interactions with national universities are facilitated by the personal linkages of the inventors, stemming from their education or career. Instead, interactions with international universities depend crucially on the role of global MNE pipelines.

Relevant differences emerge when we distinguish between collaborations with universities in Europe vis a vis the United States (US). For collaborations with universities in Europe it is mainly the global pipeline model that emerges: only working for an MNE matters, while inventors’ personal linkages are less relevant. In the case of universities in the US, instead, we find that the inventors’ personal international linkages are important: having a network of foreign colleagues and having a relatively high number of publications does matter. Moreover, in this case the global pipeline provided by the MNE only plays a role if the MNE is also North American. Therefore we find that, in order to collaborate with universities in the US, the positive impact of personal linkages holds also for the inventors working for MNEs, hence highlighting that even for large international organizations it is crucial to have individuals who, thanks to their personal characteristics, can act as boundary spanners with distant external collaborators.   

Our findings show that international collaborations between firms and universities follow a different pattern with respect to the national interactions. National interactions rely a lot on the personal connections of the inventors: local career and local education background play an important role for establishing links with national universities. On the contrary when it comes to international collaborations the organizational structure of the company inventors work for plays a much more relevant role.

Our results also show important differences between the governance of international collaborations, according to the location of the foreign university. Two models emerge: one for collaborations with European universities and one for collaborations  with US universities. Collaborations with European universities are very similar to the global pipeline model, where working for a MNE is the crucial factor, regardless of the company’s country of origin (either Italian, European or North American). The personal linkages of the inventor are not crucial: also inventors with limited international experience can participate in European-wide collaborations with universities, simply by participating to projects organized by their company, possibly in the context of EU publicly-funded projects.

On the contrary, when it comes to collaborations with US universities, working for a MNE is not enough: only working for a North American MNE increases the probability to interact with US universities, highlighting the need for the parent organization to be strongly embedded in the innovation ecosystem of the university with which the collaboration is established. At the same time, the inventor’s personal involvement in open science communities, or the inventors’ having personal contacts abroad, can partly substitute for the lack of already established global pipelines.

From a management perspective it is important to acknowledge the role of the individuals involved in international collaborations with universities: MNEs should acknowledge that having individuals with an international career or with greater familiarity with open science norms can increase the chances of setting up successful teams with the aim to set up collaborations with universities abroad, especially with those in different continents, such as in the case of the US. These individuals could act efficiently as boundary spanners capable of building connections with geographically distant academic environments. This implies on the one hand that for MNEs willing to source internationally knowledge from universities it could be important to implement hiring strategies that are aimed at attracting individuals with such characteristics. The importance of familiarity with open science norms for inventors which emerges from our results also suggests that for MNE having individuals with such skills may be particularly beneficial if they hope to start collaborating with distant universities. Even if these individuals may sometimes be considered as slightly distant from the corporate mindset, their value as boundary spanners with foreign universities should be fully appreciated.

Fassio, C., Geuna, A. and F. Rossi (2023) How do firms reach out to foreign universities? Inventors’ personal characteristics and the multinational structure of firms’, Journal of World Business, 58(3).

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