This is a guest blog from Phil Tee, chairman and CEO of Moogsoft. This is the first installment of a three-part series that speaks to navigating the challenges for tech startups in working with universities to accelerate innovation and business goals.
1. How do tech startups consider partnership with universities and when is it valuable?
There has been a long-standing tradition of partnering between established companies and academic institutions to drive innovation. Today, this type of collaboration is booming in the US and the UK, due to policies being created in both regions by higher education authorities to foster these relationships.
However, when it comes to tech startups, the collaboration could go deeper and be more meaningful. One of the obvious reasons for the cultural disconnect is that startups (venture-backed, Silicon Valley entities, especially) are commercially motivated to pursue academic research. Universities, conversely, are bastions of domain specific knowledge looking to answer big questions and make great leaps in their respective fields. The major differentiator here is time. In the case of startups, VCs are funding 18 months of operational costs, but for researchers, that timeline barely covers pursuit of an advanced degree.
So, once this differentiation is accepted, how can these two spheres be aligned enough to make the end result resonate?
Clearly, corporate and academic partnerships can be a win-win proposition for both sectors. For tech startups, these collaborations can be a strategic addition of resources into R&D projects that they may not have bandwidth or talent internally to complete. In addition, they can add a robust recruiting pool for future staffing needs. For universities, these partnerships create an ongoing opportunity for testing the rigor of theories, or leveraging existing patents towards real-world applications. The resulting synergy is that of an engineering/design model tailored to the dynamics of a specific business use case.
But how do tech startups identify the most opportune times to partner with universities? Based on my experience gained over the past 20 years and across three startups, these are the key areas for consideration:
- · Exploratory Phase: As a startup evaluates a market opportunity in a new technical or business area, it may seek additional input and a venue for testing key concepts. University researchers can often help to support these needs and validate differentiators for the initial idea/technology.
- · Data Analysis: Especially in the case of a startup working with large quantities of data, university researchers can support computational analysis. Since graduate labs are often working with data sets in novel ways, academic researchers can act as a new set of eyes for a business problem that has a data component. Such was the case here at Moogsoft, as we wanted to apply a data-driven approach to solving important IT operational management problems.
- · Technical Challenges: If a company encounters a technical log jam, university partners can add value by taking on a piece of that challenge and addressing it part-by-part in collaboration with the startups’ R&D team. If left lingering too long, these challenges may monopolize the startups team’s time and impede technical and business processes.
At Moogsoft, we’ve built an ongoing relationship with those pursuing an advanced level of data science at a leading UK university. This collaboration has helped develop our machine learning technology, creating a significant competitive advantage. For a tech startup like ours, this type of partnership has produced a real impact on accelerating our differentiation and has allowed us to accomplish more as a startup.
Phil Tee is Chairman and CEO of Moogsoft. The second installment of this series will focus on managing intellectual property rights to move product innovations from lab to market.