Rethink University Partnerships: Here’s What Really Drives (Different Type of) Impact in University-Industry Partnerships

colleagues from academia collaborating on a project

University-industry collaborations are innovation powerhouses. These partnerships not only benefit the collaborators themselves, but also create a ripple effect that improves society as a whole. From developing life-saving drugs to tackling environmental issues, these collaborations drive progress across various sectors.

A common assumption is that “closer is better” when it comes to university-industry partnerships. Did you know that geographically distant university partnerships can be more impactful, if you want to achieve certain type of impact? The assumption goes that geographically close partners with similar backgrounds will have a smoother collaboration and achieve greater impact, especially for local economic development.

However, our new research challenges this assumption. We showcase that there are also different kind of closeness, (Geographical, Institutional and Cognitive) that can influence the level of impact it can create from the partnership. These benefits include the enrichment of the knowledge base of the collaborators (knowledge impact), improvements in their economic condition (economic impact), improvements in the functioning and performance of social organisations (social impact).

We analyse 415 university-industry collaborations carried out in the UK under the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme between 1999 and 2012, complemented with in-depth interviews with seven individuals who were involved in eleven of these KTPs.[1]

Research findings

We uncover surprising factors that truly drive impactful collaborations. This blog post will unveil these factors and provide a new perspective on choosing the right university partner for your organisation’s goals.

Key findings, among others:

  • Geographical and institutional distance, instead of proximity, matters for social impact (which involves generating educational, societal, and environmental benefits). – A possible explanation is that complex social challenges require businesses to join forces with new university partners, particularly more research-intensive universities in distant locations. Since universities and businesses are often encouraged to generate social value in their local areas, this finding makes a significant original contribution by questioning the appropriateness of such expectations from local universities and businesses.
  • Both geographical and institutional proximity are independently positively associated with economic impact (improving financial and economic outcomes as well as production process and operations).
  • We demonstrate an original methodology to operationalise different types of impact of university-industry collaborations, based on the use of topic modelling techniques on reports describing the impact of the KTPs. This approach has potentially wider application to the analysis of other sets of impact reports.
  • The presence of more than one proximity would not lead to impact generation through university-business interactions
 Sign of association between proximity and type of impact:
Type of proximity:Knowledge impactEconomic impactSocial impact
The presence of only GeographicalNo effect+    
The presence of only Institutional+    +
The presence of only Cognitive  No effect    No effect  No effect
The presence of both Cognitive and Institutional  No effect  No effect
The presence of both Institutional and Geographical  No effect  
The presence of both Cognitive and Geographical  No effect    No effect  No effect
Significantly negative effect;            + Significantly positive effect 

Organisations should choose their partners carefully to achieve different type of impact.

  • In order to maximise the production of knowledge impact, organisations that frequently collaborate with universities should seek university partners with distant knowledge bases, Organisations that are not used to collaborating with universities should seek university partners with close knowledge bases.
  • Organisations that wish to improve financial and economic outcomes as well as production process and operations should seek closely located academic partners with whom they have not collaborated previously, if they wish to rely on their network of previous collaborations, they should select more geographically distant ones.
  • Organisations that wish to generate educational, societal, and environmental benefits should seek partners that are located at a distance and which have less experience in engaging in university-industry collaborations.

Policy-wise, our study suggests that funders running schemes supporting university-industry collaborations should encourage potential participants to select their partners carefully based on the types of impact they would like to achieve. For example, if the scheme has the objective to encourage economic impact, they can impose some restrictions to encourage participants to choose partners that are geographically close or partners that have prior experience of collaborations but not both. Similarly, if the scheme has the objective of encouraging knowledge impact, some restrictions could be imposed to discourage partnerships between organisations that have prior experience of collaborations as well as very close knowledge bases.

Reference

Rossi, F., de Silva, M., Pavone, P., Rosli, A., Yip, N. (2024) Proximity and impact of university-industry collaborations. A topic detection analysis of impact reports, Technologial Forecasting and Social Change Link to publication: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040162524002695


[1] We perform statistical regression analyses using the different types of impacts as dependent variables, and the various types of proximities (as well as the interactions between them) as independent variables, with a number of controls.