From lab to market: collaborating with academic institutions
Establishing partnerships with universities and academic institutions can take your climate startup to the next level. But how can you effectively approach these elusive organizations? What are the options for engagement? And how can you navigate the inherent differences across incentives and pacing?
Dan Kammen is a Distinguished Professor at UC Berkeley and runs its Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. We sat down with him to discuss how founders can initiate collaborations with universities and explore the nuances of these incredibly valuable relationships.
The dynamics of partnerships with academic institutions
Public vs private institutions
Make sure you understand the distinction between public and private universities before you take any steps towards establishing a collaboration. While public universities are very transparent, they can be complex and bureaucratic, and there’ll be a lot of hoops you’ll need to jump through in order to partner with them. Private universities, on the other hand, are largely able to write their own rules and have a higher level of flexibility, so they tend to be easier to collaborate with, despite their structure being more opaque.
Pathways for working with universities
Many startups are initially formed at universities, and can leverage the institution’s resources to help them build the business. But an existing company can also partner with a university to accelerate their work, for example by bringing student interns onboard. Startups can also partner with universities to perform research that will validate their work, which often happens in complex technological fields like carbon removal. And there are opportunities for co-development partnerships between startups and universities, with the aim of sharing knowledge and collaborating on a solution.
Engaging academic institutions
Faculty members typically don’t view things from a business angle. If you sit down with a professor who’s building something that’s relevant to your company, you should start by building rapport; begin by discussing what you’re both working on and where it overlaps, without any explicit ask. While these conversations might seem unfocused, they can lead to a huge amount of value in the long term, because as an entrepreneur you’ll be asking very different questions to a research team and can nudge them in directions they might not have considered.
You should also go directly to university officers who specifically focus on guiding research groups towards commercializing their work. Tell them that you’re interested in partnering with that university, and ask about the research that’s happening and where opportunities to collaborate may lie.
Points to keep in mind when partnering with academic institutions
1. Research moves at a different pace to the private sector
While venture capital is designed around generating returns as quickly as possible, universities revolve around the academic year and don’t move with the same urgency. Plus, if you’re working with a student or team from a university, you’ll need to factor in the time it’ll take for them to come up to speed. Manage expectations, anticipate the semester (or quarter system) schedule, and be prepared to work out how you can reconcile these two very different timelines.
2. You can always give academic institutions a much-needed push
Perfect can be the enemy of good in academia, as researchers often get stuck endlessly refining a solution rather than taking it to market. Oftentimes, to truly improve a novel technology, academics need to shift towards commercialization, and this is where the private sector can play a meaningful role. Entrepreneurs can build on universities’ IP and bring a different set of incentives, resources, and opportunities. At the same time, if you want to be a founder in a highly technical field like building integrated solar or tidal hydrogen production, remember that while the research side might look inefficient, all that tinkering around is actually vital to the process.
3. You can’t buy the answer you want
If you ask an academic institution for a third party assessment of your technology, the right amount of money will probably buy you someone’s time. But this transactional approach won’t help you build a potentially fruitful partnership with people who are working on the same problems as you. More importantly, you can’t expect to get the results you want just because you’ve thrown money at a researcher, and you’ll have to be very careful to protect both sides from any perception of influence - there’s plenty of evidence of research being manipulated because it’s been bankrolled by someone who wants a specific result.
Instead, while you’ll inevitably lean towards one outcome by virtue of your work, go into the process with an open mind and remember that you don’t know what the results are actually going to be. Your starting point should be trying to uncover the truth, because a business that capitalizes on the truth is far more likely to be productive and impactful. The research you fund will help create a better market to operate in, which will serve everyone.
4. Partnerships are about mutual benefit
You can’t show up to a university and expect them to be at your beck and call. They don’t operate that way - any partnership with an academic institution needs to center around mutual benefit. With universities it’s not a purely commercial partnership - there are a lot of intangible factors that you’ll have to align, so the more both sides are invested, the more likely it is to yield fruit.
Both public and private universities are incentivized by money, but they’ll also be motivated by the opportunity to raise their profile, publish papers, garner more influence, and potentially share the IP that’s generated from the partnership.
The most important currency for the university (and the startup) is talent, i.e. students, postdocs, and recent grads. If you can’t find a way to nurture them as part of your relationship, the partnership will fall flat.
Daniel Kammen is the James and Katherine Lau Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley, with parallel appointments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the department of Nuclear Engineering. His work is focused on decarbonization, energy access, and climate justice. He has also served as Senior Advisor for Energy and Innovation at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen is a Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC and the Co-Chair of the UC Berkeley Roundtable on Climate and Environmental Justice (ceej.berkeley.edu)