Unlocking the Power of Trust: Industry-University Partnerships for Groundbreaking Discovery

Navigating university-industry partnerships can be tricky, especially when it comes to getting industry partners on board with funding discovery-based research. While this research has the potential to create game-changing breakthroughs that put a company way ahead of the competition, the risks involved can make industry partners hesitant to invest. The secret to breaking through this barrier is building trust between partners. By consistently delivering high-value results, universities can show they're dedicated to supporting industry goals, opening the door for more collaboration on ambitious, discovery-driven projects. In this article, we'll dive into how trust-building and the quest for high-value discovery research shape industry-university partnerships, and we'll share practical insights to unlock the value of long-term commitment to these relationships.

Understanding the Interplay between University Research Activities and Industry ROI

A simple X-Y chart provides a useful visual representation of the dynamics between university and industry motivations in research collaborations. On the X-axis, university research activity ranges from applied research on the left to discovery research on the right. The Y-axis represents industry's return on investment (ROI), from low value at the bottom to high value at the top. A line labelled "trust" runs diagonally from the bottom left corner to the upper right corner of the chart, demonstrating the integral role of trust in balancing these seemingly competing motivations.

Universities aim to move along the X-axis, ultimately seeking industry funding for discovery research. Conversely, industry partners focus on maximising ROI along the Y-axis. While these goals might seem conflicting, trust serves as a moderating force, bridging the gap between the two motivations.

To foster trust, universities should abide by a set of very basic principles. For example, consistently deliver valuable research outcomes that align with their industry partners' strategic goals. Things like effective communication and transparent reporting of progress are essential in this process. As trust builds, industry partners will be more inclined to support higher-risk discovery research projects, recognising the potential for significant long-term rewards.

Understanding and accommodating the risk tolerance of industry partners is another key aspect of trust-building. University researchers should engage in a dialogue about the potential risks and rewards of discovery research, working collaboratively with industry partners to develop a shared vision and roadmap for moving forward. By jointly identifying research interests, agreeing on project milestones, and determining success metrics, universities can create a solid foundation for long-term, high-value partnerships.

Building Long-term Trust through Incremental Engagements

Developing trust in university-industry partnerships doesn't happen overnight. Instead, it requires a series of incremental engagements that begin with relatively low-risk, transactional projects. These projects typically focus on short-term problem-solving and can be catalysed by external (third-party) funding. Although the initial engagements may deliver only incremental value, they serve as a foundation for building long-term trust between the university and industry partners.

By consistently delivering positive outcomes in these early engagements, universities demonstrate their commitment to industry partners' success and their ability to generate valuable research. This track record helps to establish the university as a trusted and reliable partner, paving the way for more ambitious, discovery-focused projects in the future.

Even in these small projects, it's essential for universities to maintain open lines of communication and to engage industry partners in the research process. This may involve inviting industry partners to participate in project meetings, providing regular progress updates, and seeking industry input on project direction and priorities. By fostering a collaborative atmosphere, universities can create a shared sense of ownership and investment in the research outcomes.

It is crucial, also, to adapt and respond to industry partners' needs and concerns. This may involve adjusting research priorities, reallocating resources, or refining project objectives to better align with industry expectations. By being responsive and adaptable, universities signal their commitment to the partnership and their desire to deliver value to their industry partners.

Starting with smaller-scale, applied research projects allows universities to demonstrate their expertise and ability to deliver valuable outcomes within a low-risk environment. As trust grows, universities can progressively introduce more complex and ambitious projects that involve higher levels of risk and investment. By systematically building trust through incremental engagements, universities can pave the way for high-value, discovery-based research partnerships that deliver game-changing innovation and lasting impact.

Unfortunately, many university-industry partnerships remain stuck in the realm of one-off, low-value applied research projects. This stagnation often results from a failure to invest in the long-term development of the relationship between the two parties. For these collaborations to reach their full potential, both universities and industry partners must commit to nurturing their relationship over time.

One of the biggest challenges we see fostering long-term trust is the potential for misaligned expectations or priorities. Oftentimes this is in the form of industry partners who are disappointed with the outcomes of their investment. Universities must be proactive in addressing these issues, engaging in open dialogue with industry partners to understand their objectives and ensure that research projects are designed to deliver value. Establishing clear expectations and developing a shared understanding of project goals can go a long way in building trust and fostering long-term collaboration.

Another challenge lies in the balance between short-term gains and long-term investment. In the early stages of a relationship industry partners may be focused on achieving immediate results, while universities may have a more long-term view of the partnership's potential. To bridge this gap, universities should work to demonstrate the value of investing in discovery research by highlighting the potential for transformative breakthroughs that can revolutionise entire industries. While this can be difficult to sell to partners who are often concerned with creating shareholder profits, or cash flow, shifting the focus to the bigger prize on offer is well worth the efforts. This is especially important as one-off research projects, while they may offer short-term benefits, often fail to deliver the transformative impact and innovation that can result from long-term, trust-based collaborations. This requires a long-term investment from both sides. By committing to this process, universities and industry partners can forge enduring collaborations that drive innovation and deliver significant benefits for both parties.


For industry to invest in high-value discovery research in universities there must be a long-term commitment to building trust between both parties. By focusing on incremental engagements to begin with, and consistently delivering valuable outcomes, universities can demonstrate their dedication to industry partners' success and gradually move toward more ambitious, discovery-focused projects.

To foster trust and drive innovation, universities should:

  1. Begin with low-risk, applied research projects that address immediate industry needs and provide tangible benefits.
  2. Engage in open communication and collaboration, involving industry partners in the research process and ensuring a shared understanding of project objectives.
  3. Demonstrate a willingness to adapt and respond to industry partners' needs, showing flexibility and commitment to the partnership.
  4. Establish a track record of successful collaborations, highlighting the university's expertise and ability to deliver valuable research outcomes.
  5. Balance short-term gains with long-term investment, highlighting the potential for transformative breakthroughs that can revolutionise entire industries.

By cultivating trust over time, university-industry partnerships can move beyond one-off, low-value applied research projects and unlock the full potential of high-value discovery research. This long-term investment in trust-building will ultimately drive innovation and deliver significant benefits for both universities and their industry partners.