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University–industry collaboration: Jump-starting innovation

October 6, 2010

In Costa Rica, researchers and business have found innovative ways to improve the productivity of the country’s coffee industry, a key sector of its economy.

It started in the 1990s when publicly funded researchers joined with factories, mills, and farmers’ co-operatives to find innovations that would produce higher quality beans, streamline the production process, and allow more milling and roasting to occur in Costa Rica.

“Now the quality of coffee is higher, and the prices paid to small farmers are also higher,” says Jeffrey Orozco, a professor at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. “Farmers can’t do this research themselves, so these public labs are important to keep up productivity in small farming,”

Orozco is part of a global research project working to understand how more of these collaborations between business and researchers ― who are often based in universities ― can occur in the developing world. The project’s researchers view innovation as the outcome of these collaborations when knowledge is translated into a new practical application that benefits society.

Innovation’s role in development 

“Far too often, knowledge in universities stays in universities…For innovation to occur, for knowledge to convert into value, universities need links with business,” says Jean Woo, a program officer with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) who specializes in innovation and technology policies.

History has shown that links between researchers and businesses, such as consulting agreements, licences to use patents, and R&D projects, can lead to innovations that keep local businesses competitive. This helps ensure countries have a sustainable base for economic growth.

“Behind each successful sector in Brazil’s economy you have a university or research institute supporting that industrial development,” says Eduardo Albuquerque, a university professor in Brazil and coordinator of the project’s Latin American research teams.

Driving innovation

While research–business links help generate economic growth, they don’t widely occur in the developing world. To jump-start these collaborations, IDRC is supporting research teams in 12 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The goal is to understand how these relationships work now and to recommend policies that will support them in the future.

In Latin America, researchers in Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Brazil have spent the past two years surveying the relationships between universities and businesses. They found that even though such relationships between the two are the exception, not the rule, the number of links has been underestimated.

Their findings refute conventional wisdom that universities mainly provide consulting services to business. The surveys found a variety of projects underway, including joint research and product development.

For example, a Brazilian steel company recently tried to license a type of steel easy to mould into curved shapes that would harden permanently when painted. The company’s initial request for foreign help soon became mired in red tape. It then contacted Brazil’s own Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and began a research and development project that resulted in a licence for the firm.

It was a win–win situation for the Brazilian institutions, says Professor Albuquerque. “The firm got the technology and the university got the research.”

Overcoming challenges

Researchers have also pinpointed challenges facing these relationships, such as the potential of undue industry influence over research priorities and universities’ complex administrative procedures.

But some universities in the developing world are working hard to overcome these challenges. Professor Orozco says many universities are setting up offices geared specifically to promote such joint projects. “It’s clear universities want to have a positive impact on society.”

The multi-regional research project continues until 2013. Research teams are exploring further how governments, universities, and businesses can break down barriers to innovation. The teams will solidify their policy recommendations and work together to disseminate their findings.

According to Albuquerque, data from the Latin America study already show solid reasons to beef up investment in research for innovation, “particularly in sectors that have a high impact on development.” Costa Rica’s coffee industry is one such sector: an industry with the potential to provide employment to many segments of the population, from mill owners to smallholder farmers.

Angela Pereira is a former writer in IDRC’s Communications Division.

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of UniWorld/UniMonde, an insert in University Affairs published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.