Enhancing Innovation Through Business and University Partnerships

Enhancing Innovation Through Business and University Partnerships

Enhancing Innovation Through Business and University Partnerships

Joshua L. Cohen, Ronald G. Kander and Gail Martino

Originally published: 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 4, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 4)
Read time: 6 minutes

Fruitful business and university collaboration is here to stay and grow.

Despite inherent tension between industry’s fierce competitiveness and academia’s open exchange of shared knowledge, opportunities abound in the many places where the interests of businesses and universities are aligned.

This was the logical conclusion reached after PDMA Philadelphia Chapter’s interactive event at Philadelphia University, affectionately known as “PhilaU.” An esteemed panel representing the key stakeholders in business and university partnerships shared keen insights about their collaborations, ranging from the challenges that must be overcome to its vital role in enhancing and accelerating innovation.

DEC Center

Philadelphia University’s impressive DEC Center provided an apt venue. It hosts the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce and exemplifies PhilaU’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies. It also models—and therefore prepares students for success in—the interdisciplinary environments in which innovation thrives in today’s firms.

It was in this setting that the panelists addressed the toughest questions facing business and university partnerships: What does ideal business and university collaboration look like? What are the perceived barriers and challenges to achieving that ideal? And how do we overcome them while achieving sometimes divergent objectives?

Esteemed Panelists

The panelists articulated the dreams, challenges and needs of key stakeholders in business and university collaboration. These stakeholders include the university representatives that champion collaboration with businesses, representatives of industry that sponsor university programs and the students that do the active work of learning while innovating.

University interests were represented by D.R. Widder, executive director of Innovation at PhilaU; and Mike Leonard, academic dean of the School of Design and Engineering at PhilaU. Widder and Leonard shared their first-hand experiences with the development and management of student teams. Currently, Philadelphia University already supports no fewer than five curricular pedagogy and industry interaction programs in which businesses benefit from the fresh ideas and creativity of PhilaU’s students.


Philadelphia University’s teaching pedagogy is called “Nexus Learning,” which describes its focus on active, collaborative, real-world profes-sional education that is infused with the liberal arts. A hallmark of the Nexus Learning concept is its formal Industry Engagement program that enhances academic/industry interactions by facilitating partnerships and by providing multiple frameworks for companies to directly interact with students and faculty in a wide range of novel ways on real-world projects and research questions. Philadelphia University’s Sprint, Nexus Innovation, Capstone and graduate research projects supplement class projects.

The common core shared by PhilaU’s Nexus Learning programs is that each project serves the dual purposes of (1) business impact (addressing something important and meaningful to the company such that the company will be impacted), and (2) educational outcomes (value for each student’s experience).

Each of PhilaU’s programs actively engages industry and offers university resources for in-novation in interdisciplinary settings. A unique aspect of PhilaU’s programs is that in most cases, project teams consist of multiple diverse disciplines, all working together. In addition to the insights they gained by overseeing PhilaU’s innovative programs, Widder and Leonard also provided insights from the perspectives of uni-versity administration and faculty, which have mostly common but some competing interests.

Industry interests were represented within the panel by Martino, Ph.D., global open innovation manager at Unilever; and Tom Ruggierio, vice president of Technology & Business Development for Airline Hydraulics. Martino and Ruggierio provided diverse insights from their perspectives in a global conglomerate active on every continent and a mid-sized company that targets the New England and mid-Atlantic manufacturing communities. Despite the diversity of their companies in terms of size and product categories, Martino and Ruggierio described with great enthusiasm the substantial benefits they both witnessed in business and university collaborations. They both shared their experiences working with students to develop new product innovations.

And without energetic and creative students like Claire Reardon, a PhilaU Bachelor of Science student in Mechanical Engineering, business and university collaborations could not excel. Reardon clearly articulated her experiences in collaborative business and university programs, having completed a project with Ruggierio at Airline Hydraulics in addition to her current work at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. Her range of experiences highlighted the best aspects of healthy collaboration as well as a student’s vision for what such collaboration can become.

The PDMA event was led and moderated by professor Ron Kander, founding executive dean of Philadelphia University’s Kander College of Design, Engineering and Commerce; and Joshua Cohen, president of the PDMA Philadelphia Chapter and an intellectual property attorney with RatnerPrestia. Kander and Cohen probed for the panelists’ perspectives about the benefits and challenges of business and university collaboration and the vision for future collaborations. Several consistent themes emerged.

Clear Benefits

Each of the panelists explained their respective interests in successful collaboration. As in Figure 1, the most fruitful innovation occurs where these interests overlap. It is at this intersection that students, university faculty and administration and industry can work with conviction. Business and university collaboration is most valuable where university, business, and student interests are closely aligned.

Figure 1


Motivated to provide opportunities for learning and improved forms of pedagogy, university faculty see collaboration as a means for practical training and for preparing students to contribute actively when they enter industry. This is especially relevant at Philadelphia University, which emphasizes interdisciplinary studies to prepare students for success in the cross-functional environments of our best performing companies. With similar objectives, as well as an interest in obtaining industry sponsorships and possibly even intellectual property licensing revenues, university administrators reap benefits from collaboration in the form of community engagement and long-term industry relationships that enrich the educational experience and keep it relevant.

Students interested in gaining practical experience and networking find great benefit by working with industry partners. They also gain a strengthened résumé and a bag of tools that they will carry with them as they embark on their careers.

While seeking the resources in creativity and people power that universities can offer, industry partners are positioned to benefit from fresh ideas and a source of future employees as well. They also strengthen their bonds to universities and enjoy the synergies that occur at the intersection between pedagogical motives and profit-seeking strategies. They may even gain rights to intellectual property that can provide a commercial advantage over their competitors.

Overcoming Challenges

The panelists also found it easy to identify the challenges that they faced and overcame to achieve successful collaboration. From the university perspective, Leonard and Widder emphasized the importance of project and team management to, for example, avoid “rogue” teams that stray from a project’s brief. They also made it clear that students should never be viewed merely as a source of cheap labor. Instead, industry partners should remain committed to fostering educational outcomes.

From the business and industry perspective, Martino pointed out that there are often questions about (1) the handling of confidential information and the ownership and control of intellectual property, (2) the need for top-down support for successful collaborative programs, (3) the manner in which successful collaboration can be measured and (4) even more mundane practical considerations such as the difficulty in reconciling the schedules of students with global design teams. Apparently, the definition of academic success in terms of learning and feedback can diverge from industry’s metric of feasible solutions to defined problems. Ruggierio pointed out that the timing of projects in business environments differs sharply from the academic pace and calendar. Put simply, Ruggierio made it clear that a corporate timeline is not likely to jive with the semester schedule and the fleeting availability of students between semesters.

Such challenges can and must be anticipated and addressed by advance planning for business and university collaboration. Doing so ensures that the synergies borne from healthy collaboration are not frustrated by surprises.

From the student perspective, the project brief must necessarily provide directed learning opportunities as well as nurturing guidance. As Reardon explained, having direct access to R&D leadership is critically important. Also, opportunities to provide ongoing feedback to students should be built into the project so that students can be redirected as they navigate the trial and error process of product innovation.

As universities become more sophisticated and build an infrastructure within which business and university partnerships operate, they can minimize the challenges and focus instead on the bright future that business and university collaboration can provide. They can also reconcile conflicts such as tension between faculty members’ desire to publish and industry’s interest in confidentiality and competitive advantage.

A Bright Future

The bright future of business and university collaboration is already here. But when the panelists were asked to describe what an ideal project would look like, they had no trouble describing a program with improved communications and access to R&D leadership as well as student feedback. It would also employ clear and relevant project briefs and success metrics that can be used by corporate sponsors to guide and refine their programs.

When asked to share predictions about the future of business and university collaboration, the panel did not hesitate. One prediction is a growing number of partnerships and increased embedding of corporate sponsors into universities (and vice versa). Martino predicted that a growing number of universities will desire to engage with larger corporations and that universities will need to position themselves relative to their competitors to be attractive partners. The industry sponsors will continue to have their specific needs, while universities will increasingly differentiate themselves to attract businesses to their most valuable resources and students. As Widder and Leonard mentioned, ideal future collaborations will occur in environments where the lines between businesses and universities are blurred. They envision ever closer partnerships, where universities serve as seamless extensions of the innovation, research and development resources of companies, and companies provide the real-world experience and feedback to continually shape education and curriculum.

The exchange of insights among the stake-holders in business and university collaboration should undoubtedly continue. As the benefits and challenges of the players are better understood, opportunities for improved synergy and predictable success will emerge. Meanwhile, simply hearing the views of business and university representatives also heightens empathy and understanding. It also reminds us of the synergies of collaborative innovation—the result is greater than the sum of its parts.

About the Authors

Joshua L. Cohen, Esq., is president of PDMA’s Greater Philadelphia Chapter. He is also a shareholder and intellectual property counsel with RatnerPrestia, a full-service intellectual property law firm serving international and domestic clientele. In his IP law practice, Cohen develops and executes business-oriented legal strategies that help innovative companies to protect their new technologies and product designs while respecting the intellectual property rights of others.

Gail Martino, PhD, is an open innovation manager at Unilever. Prior to joining Unilever, she was a senior scientist at the Gillette Company. Earlier in her career, she held academic posts at Colgate University and at Yale University School of Medicine’s John B. Pierce Laboratory.

Ronald G. Kander, PhD, is founding executive dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce at Philadelphia University where he teaches and does research in the areas of materials selection & design, composite materials, polymer processing and sustainable manufacturing. Before joining Philadelphia University in 2011, he was founding director of the School of Engineering at James Madison University (JMU), department head of Integrated Science & Technology at JMU and a faculty member in the Materials Science & Engineering Department at Virginia Tech.

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