What Universities Wish Industry Knew About Collaborations: A Q&A with Brent Fagg from Virginia Commonwealth University

What Universities Wish Industry Knew About Collaborations: A Q&A with Brent Fagg from Virginia Commonwealth University


Brent Fagg shares his insights of what industry leaders should consider and be aware of when collaborating with universities

Brent Fagg currently serves as Virginia Commonwealth University’s Senior Licensing Manager in their TechTransfer and Ventures unit. He has over 25 years of experience in the innovation space and facilitating collaborations across the technology ecosystem. You can reach Brent for more information about collaborating with VCU or his expertise at bfagg@vcu.edu.

Could you briefly share your background and how you came to be in your current role in tech transfer at VCU? What inspired you to become involved in facilitating university-industry partnerships?

After completing my service in the Navy as a nuclear engineer, I pursued academic interests and earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and master’s degrees in biotechnology and entrepreneurship from the University of Tennessee. My professional journey led me to RTI International, where I worked in the innovation advisor group. In this role, I engaged in dual innovation services, encompassing traditional tech transfer opportunities, particularly with NASA, as well as technology scouting for businesses.

I focused on identifying potential collaborations between industry and university technologies or researchers, facilitating the development of innovative solutions. Subsequently, I gained valuable experience in various startups, contributing to software companies and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. This diverse background has equipped me with a unique perspective and skill set, making me well-suited for my current role in tech transfer at VCU, where I continue to foster university-industry partnerships in research and development.

As a tech transfer professional facilitating industry-academia collaborations, what do you see as the main benefits for companies in partnering with university researchers?

Collaborating with university researchers offers significant advantages for companies seeking innovative research and development opportunities. Firstly, it taps into the concept that expertise is not solely confined to in-house teams. By partnering with universities, companies gain access to a broader pool of specialized knowledge and skills, enhancing the overall capabilities of their R&D efforts.

Furthermore, a key benefit lies in the ability to share the costs associated with research and development. Establishing an in-house team for such endeavors can be financially burdensome. Collaborating with university researchers allows companies to distribute R&D expenses, making the innovation process more cost-effective.

Additionally, partnering with universities enables companies to mitigate risks associated with research investments. By selecting intellectual property (IP) that has already reached a certain level of maturity and demonstrated efficacy, companies reduce the uncertainty and potential setbacks commonly associated with developing innovations from scratch. This approach provides a more secure and efficient pathway for companies engaged in research and development collaborations with universities.

What are some common challenges or pitfalls companies should be aware of when pursuing research partnerships with universities?

Navigating research partnerships with universities comes with certain challenges and considerations that companies should be mindful of, particularly in the realm of intellectual property (IP) ownership and associated expenses. Universities typically incorporate overhead expenses into their partnership fees, and these costs are often itemized in the agreement. While working with a private firm may involve similar fees, they are not always explicitly broken down, making them less transparent.

For instance, when engaging a private engineering firm, costs might be presented as $150/hour for a junior engineer. In contrast, a university may quote the same work at $80/hour for the junior engineer with an additional 50% overhead expense ($40), totaling $120/hour. Although the overall cost may be lower when collaborating with universities, some companies may express reservations about the seemingly higher overhead rate. It’s essential for industry partners to have a clear understanding of these financial structures and communicate openly to address any concerns, ensuring a mutually beneficial and transparent collaboration.

What advice would you have for companies in negotiating aspects like IP rights and licensing?

In navigating negotiations related to aspects such as IP rights and licensing, a proactive and open dialogue with the Tech Transfer office is crucial. Engaging in discussions about the specific terms of interest, your business model, and any restrictions you may have helps lay the groundwork for a more collaborative and tailored agreement. Clearly communicating your preferences and constraints facilitates a smoother drafting process, ensuring that the final agreement aligns with both parties’ expectations.

This collaborative approach is especially important when considering various commercialization strategies that may not fit standard royalty models. By understanding each other’s perspectives and requirements early in the negotiation process, we can work towards crafting terms that are well-suited to how you intend to implement the technology. This tailored and cooperative approach enhances the likelihood of a successful and mutually beneficial collaboration in the realm of industry research and development.

What trends do you see in university-industry partnerships in your field? What is an area of opportunity you think more peers in university-industry partnerships should be focused on moving forward?

In the realm of university-industry partnerships, a notable trend has emerged, emphasizing a greater inclination towards launching startups originating from university technologies. While this may not immediately appear as a conventional collaboration between the university and industry, the evolving model involves companies expressing interest in the formation of startups around specific technologies. This approach allows for further development and risk mitigation within the startup framework. Companies often strategically acquire these startups upon achieving predetermined milestones.

This trend presents a unique opportunity for industry collaborators engaging in research and development. It facilitates access to capital, particularly targeting early-stage companies with promising technologies. However, it’s crucial to recognize that not all technologies lend themselves to the startup model. Many innovations are better suited for adoption by larger companies, integrating them into existing products or supply systems. Moving forward, this recognition presents an area of opportunity for university-industry partnerships to focus on the practical adoption and implementation of technologies into established corporate frameworks.

What advice would you have for corporate R&D leaders looking to build or strengthen their academic engagement strategies?

For corporate R&D leaders aiming to enhance their academic engagement strategies, I recommend reaching out to Tech Transfer offices to explore available opportunities. Simultaneously, establishing connections with research deans is essential to gain insights into the ongoing activities within academic research units.

At our Tech Transfer office, we have fostered strong relationships with companies through a collaborative approach. Some have initiated a ‘show and share’ process, sharing broad ideas about their target markets or sectors of interest. In response, we provide an overview of a diverse range of technologies that align with these interests. This initial exploration is followed by a focused selection of technologies and inventors for more in-depth research collaborations.

This approach proves particularly valuable for companies operating in expansive fields like semiconductors, chemical industries, and biotechnology. By engaging with both Tech Transfer offices and research deans, corporate R&D leaders can establish comprehensive academic partnerships that align with their strategic goals and explore mutually beneficial research collaborations.

Selecting a collaborator and negotiating the contract is only the first step. How can industry make partnerships successful after they’re underway? 

Continued communication plays a pivotal role in enhancing and solidifying the relationship between universities and industry partners. An example from our experiences involves a recent technology licensing collaboration in the construction industry. Our industry partner, proactively shared a comprehensive market strategy report. Notably, they expressed an interest in extending the application of the licensed technology to the shipping industry.

This ongoing dialogue provided a new opportunity for our partnership. The company openly communicated product needs and outlined any restrictions associated with adapting the technology for the alternative application. By understanding the alternative application, our research team recommended modifications to better align the technology with shipping industry requirements. This led to prompt proof-of-concept testing, subsequent IP filings, and the incorporation of new intellectual property into our existing licensing agreement.

The key takeaway is that sustained and transparent communication post-contract negotiation allows for quick identification of evolving needs, collaborative problem-solving, and agile adjustments to ensure the ongoing success of university-industry partnerships in research and development.

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