University-industry knowledge transfer: How to bridge the gap?

Fundamental scientific discoveries are essential to increasing innovation and productivity in an economy. However, despite sustained increases in the quantity of scientific knowledge, recent productivity growth in most advanced economies has stagnated (Arora et al., 2019). At the same time, we observe that firms are funding less basic research internally, relying instead more heavily on scientific knowledge generated in universities (Fleming et al., 2019). These two observations point at a general problem: There exists an increasing gap in university-industry knowledge transfer. The translation of scientific knowledge to technical progress has proved to be more difficult in practice than expected.

The new division of innovative labor, with universities focusing on research and firms focusing on development and commercialization, comes with some caveats. University research is often criticized for being curiosity-driven rather than mission-focused. With regard to knowledge transfer, this may create a conflict of interest, implying that firms are unable to “translate” research findings into executable solutions.

Moreover, firms find it increasingly difficult to detect scientific discoveries that are useful for their technological development, given the sheer amount of scientific work published. Bridging the gap between science and technological development may be achieved through engaging in academic collaborations (Perkmann et al., 2013, 2021). Cooperating with academic scientists, for instance, increases the chances to generate valuable innovation and enhance the firm’s productivity (Gittelman und Kogut, 2003). A prominent example of such an academic collaboration is the acquisition of Spin-offs or Start-ups within (primarily larger) firms. However, even this type of university-industry knowledge transfer is often accompanied by various institutional/organizational barriers and involves a large amount of costs and risks to the firms (Studie 4, SBFI Bericht, 2020).

What can be done in order to reduce the university-industry knowledge transfer gap? How can we mitigate conflicts of interest? What is the role of political institutions? How should we approach the cooperation between universities and industry in the future?

Must-Read – the team should read this before the kick-off

Must Read on the problem (Introduction):
Arora, A.; Belenzon, S.; Patacconi, A. & Suh, J. (2019). “The Changing Structure of American Innovation: Some Cautionary Remarks for Economic Growth” National Bureau of Economic Research, National Bureau of Economic Research, WP 25893.URL: https://www.nber.org/papers/w25893

Must Read on scientific collaboration:
Perkmann M., Tartari V., McKelvey M., Autio E., Broström A., D’Este P., Fini R., Geuna A., Grimaldi R., Hughes A., Krabel S., Kitson M., Llerena P., Lissoni F., Salter A., Sobrero M., (2013). “Academic engagement and commercialisation: A review of the literature on university–industry relations”, Research Policy, 42(2), 423-442. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733312002235

Additional literature:
Fleming L., Greene H., Li G., Marx M., and Yao D., (2019). “Government-funded research increasingly fuels innovation”, Science, 364(6446), 1139-1141. URL: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaw2373

Staatssekretariat für Bildung, Forschung und Innovation (SBFI), (2020). Bericht «Forschung und Innovation in der Schweiz 2020». Studie 4: Analyse des Wissens- und Technologietransfers in der Schweiz aus Sicht der Unternehmen. 247-268. URL: https://www.sbfi.admin.ch/sbfi/de/home/dienstleistungen/publikationen/publikationsdatenbank/f-i-bericht-2020.html

Gittelman M., and Kogut B. (2003). “Does good science lead to valuable knowledge? Biotechnology firms and the evolutionary logic of citation patterns”, Management Science, 49(4), 366–382. URL: https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/mnsc.49.4.366.14420

Perkmann M., Salandra R., Tartari V., McKelvey M., Hughes A., (2021). “Academic engagement: A review of the literature 2011-2019”, Research Policy, 50(1), 1-20. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004873332030189X?via%3Dihub

Scientific Partner

Supporting researcher

Nicole Loumeau

Dr. Nicole Loumeau is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Innovation Economics at the Swiss Economic Institute (KOF) at ETH Zurich. Her research focuses on the importance of scientific research for technological development. She received her PhD in Economics from ETH Zurich (in October 2020) and holds a Master in Philosophy&Economics from University of Bayreuth as well as a Bachelor in International Economics from University of Tuebingen.