Choose the right university partners to drive research and innovation
Let’s face it, the smartest people don’t all work in your organization. The thought has been shared by many leaders, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and is originally attributed to Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and UNIX contributor. He said,
“The smartest people in the world don’t all work for us; most of them work for someone else.”
To benefit from the creativity of smart people who are external to your organization, you need a way to find and attract them to contribute their brain power. There are time-tested ways to accomplish this, including traditional open innovation, incubators, and startups.
Another approach is a partner program. Ford Motor Company has used this approach for decades. By continuously learning and improving, they are a leader in the approach with answers for others considering a partner program.
To explain how their system works and tips for implementing a partner program, Ed Krause joins us. He is the Global Manager External Alliances Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Company. He has global responsibility for developing cutting edge technology and competitive advantage for Ford by developing relationships and collaborative projects involving universities and partner companies.
Anyone interested in open innovation or a more formal partner program will find this discussion valuable.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:26] What types of partnerships do you manage at Ford?
My team is responsible for our global R&D alliances with universities, national laboratories, and a few companies. The bulk of the work is with universities. Ford has been working with universities since the 1950s and formed our first strategic alliance with MIT . In 2006, we added Michigan and Northwestern to the program. To date, we’ve given 950 awards, or unrestricted grants, to universities.
[4:42] What was the motivation to start the alliance program?
Universities in the 1990s looked ahead and forecast a significant decline in government funding. At the same time, internal corporate research labs were also becoming financially difficult and companies were looking for a different model. At Ford, our CEO served on the board with the president of MIT and they decided Ford and MIT would form a new alliance model. We quickly learned that spending money is easy but getting value is more difficult. We’ve evolved the model over time to increase the value to the company.
[6:53] What types of projects come out of the university partnerships?
When we first came out with our Sync system (a voice-controlled entertainment/calling system), there was concern that it would be distracting and shouldn’t be allowed in vehicles. We had the data, but the regulators didn’t believe us because they thought the data was biased. We worked with the University of Michigan to gather thousands of hours of independent driving data to validate what we knew was the case. Another example is an F-150 trailer backup feature that was proven to be possible at the University of Michigan. We took their idea and applied our production processes to it.
[13:12] What are the characteristics of a successful partnership?
It has to be a win-win at the alliance level. It’s always a win for the universities because they receive funding and industry-relevant research problems to work on. Ford needs appropriate IP rights to give us the ability to put the work into production. Not every project is successful, but we’ve had enough success to justify growing the alliance program. There’s a huge overlap between what’s academically interesting and what’s relevant to us. We’ve been able to move beyond fundamental research and students are earning their PhDs by doing this work.
[17:32] What do you look for in an alliance partner? How do you find them and select them?
We look for competency and cooperation in corporate relations. We’re also looking for technical competency in relevant areas. Often, the schools are not very different from a technical perspective but can vary widely in terms of corporate relations and technology licensing offices. Sometimes a university is very focused on startups or royalties, which doesn’t work for us as an established company. We work best with universities that are looking to grow their research investment on campus.
[20:30] How do you decide which project a university receives?
Some companies use a submission process, others use a challenge problem model. Ford uses a little of both. We don’t restrict any partner from any area because new expertise can often crop up in unexpected places at a university. We run an annual proposal submission process that culminates in a review with our CTO. The proposal selection process is on an annual basis but the projects have varying lengths, usually 2-3 years. When we go to campuses to request proposals, we talk about our key needs and problems and often receive proposals from multiple schools to address the same problem. We’ve also done projects that involve multiple universities.
[25:39] What types of projects are being worked on right now?
Ford has done more autonomous vehicle work with universities than any other company. Computing is also very interesting as cars continue to become computers on wheels that are connected to the cloud. Materials science continues to be a very big topic, as does fuel economy. For example, the new F-150 is 700 pounds lighter than previous models because it’s an all aluminum body. The research to make that happen came from universities. We do a lot of data analytics work and continue working on enhancements to our combustion engines.
[30:39] What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a university alliance program?
You need to first understand your own goals. Are you looking for research, recruiting, philanthropy, or some combination of those things? A lot of companies are not clear about this when they go in. You also want to choose your partners very carefully by benchmarking your peers. It doesn’t take many phone calls with peers to learn which schools are cooperative or not. Finally, hold yourself to an ROI-based metric. If there is no ROI, as soon as bad times come, the university work will be cut. When Ford was first looking to work with MIT, we benchmarked another company that eventually came back to benchmark us because they’d lost support for university work on their side.
- UIDP – Professional organization, strengthening university-industry partnerships
- Connect with Ed via his LinkedIn Profile
- Ford F-150 Factory Tour
“The smartest people in the world don’t all work for us; most of them work for someone else.” -Bill Joy
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