Collaboration is a key part of the way we do business. We see our collaborators as important ‘assets’ of the business.
As a small technology development company we can’t hope to have all of the capabilities need to get a product to market, so it makes sense to collaborate with other smart people that have what we need. Obviously this must be done without compromising intellectual property rights (IPR), but we usually find that less difficult than you would expect. If you find someone with a solution that could help your technology succeed, it is never a waste of time to approach them and explore possible collaboration.
Collaborations can be long standing relationships or quite short lived: both work well. The key feature of R&D collaboration is that it benefits both (all) parties: usually this means sharing the work (and cost) and sharing the outcome.
Collaboration with academic groups
Research collaborations with academic groups can be easy to establish. All academics are under pressure to work with ‘industry’ and there are lots of different grants to support collaborations. There are also networks set up to facilitate industry-academia collaboration. We are members of IBCarb an industrial biotechnology network focused on glycoscience tools for biotechnology and bioenergy.
When establishing a collaboration we would recommend dealing the academic first – they are enthusiastic about their science and will probably be keen to collaborate (it will bring them funding). Once you have established the relationship they will bring in the tech-transfer office to do the legal stuff – the ‘Collaboration Agreement’. They should have templates available to help you keep legal costs down, but it is always advisable to get legal advice.
Intellectual property rights are the key issue in the Collaboration Agreement, although publication rights will also be important to the academic partner. You will know what IPR you require – make that very clear from the beginning so that you don’t waste time on a fruitless negotiation. You must also do your ‘due diligence’ and make sure that the academic does not have any conflict of interest.
We have a long-standing collaboration with the School of Chemistry at University of Edinburgh, although I should really say that it is with Dr Dusan Uhrin and his group because the relationship with him is key. We’ve supported two PhD students with his group and have a KTP associate from his group. Our relationship with this group exemplifies a good collaboration – we have the IPR we need, they get some extra funding, and we published papers together.
Commercial R&D collaborations are very valuable to young technology companies.
There are a few different collaboration scenarios:
- You have developed technology IP and collaborate with a large company that wants to access or co-develop that IP.
- You have developed technology IP and collaborate with another small technology company to co-develop your IP.
- You want to collaborate with another company to develop new IP.
Collaboration with large companies, who may also be your target customers or licensees, can fulfil a number of requirements: validate your technology, provide a potential route to market, provide early collaboration fees / milestone revenue, provide commercialisation expertise you lack, and can be an ‘image enhancer’. For a very small company it may only be possible / desirable to have one large company collaborator at a time, so choose carefully. Identifying and approaching collaborators is likely to require a lot of business development effort, so don’t embark on this unless you have a clear idea of what you are looking for. As with any collaboration IPR is key, so be careful to protect your IPR and get appropriate legal advice.
Collaboration with small technology companies, similar to ourselves is often the easiest to establish, probably because of a shared mind-set. Identifying and approaching the collaborator is easier than big companies, because of greater openness. The need to check for conflicts of interest and protect IPR is the same as any collaboration, as is the need to get appropriate legal advice. A good example of successful small company collaboration is ours with MicroA in Norway. We at Glycomar developed background product IP but didn’t have a production capability, so it was an obvious fit to work with MicroA who have production IP relevant to our product. The collaboration was made easier by accessing grant support from Technology Strategy Board and from Eurostars. We will collaborate to bring a product to market in the next 18 months.
The value of Collaboration
Collaboration is key tool for small technology companies, which generates value for both (all) partners. The important question to ask – can the value be generated without the collaboration? If the answer is no, then go ahead and collaborate.