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Guest blog post by Nir Eisikovits

For the past fifteen years Boeing and Caltech have collaborated closely on developing systems integration technology. As part of their agreement Boeing helps fund university labs and graduate stipends and the two parties have streamlined the process of intellectual property transfer. By partnering with Caltech, Boeing gets access to cutting edge engineering expertise.

Walk out of LearnLaunch’s South Boston Location and you won’t have to wander far before you come across a company born from a collaboration between industry and academia. Think about Akamai or Bose, for example, two companies co-founded by MIT professors.

But the impression of close collaboration between Academia and Industry that places like Pasadena, Stanford or Boston give off can be deceptive. In fact, beyond the big names – large companies partnering with elite universities or graduates from exclusive schools occasionally starting companies with their former professors – academy and industry move in parallel orbits.

That is too bad. Most of the “real” economy is made up of entrepreneurs, and either small or medium businesses. Most of the “real” academy is made up of non-elite universities. Yes, the Boeings and the GE’s of the world can afford to buy all the expertise they want from institutions like Caltech and the MIT. But these collaborations, though spectacular, are few and far between. Though early stage entrepreneurs and small businesses can truly benefit from the evidence-based knowledge and rigor that academics have to offer, and though academics would love to expand the impact of their expertise beyond the walls of the university –collaborations between the two sectors are rare.

The entrepreneur pressed for time and for good expert advice and the academic from a mid-sized university who can provide that advice at a fraction of the price charged by a large consulting firm are very valuable for each other. There are fields such as statistical analysis, big data, and artificial intelligence where academic knowledge exceeds what is available in industry. And there are areas where the knowledge academics have does not exist outside universities (consider expertise on cultural sensitivities influencing business practices in China, or knowledge on how Saudi Royal Family politics influence that country’s energy industry). A Scholar who has spent her professional life studying the question an entrepreneur needs answered is often a subway ride or a phone call away. And yet, the two are unlikely to meet or even know about each other’s existence.

And so, the question begs itself: if businesses and entrepreneurs need expert advice at a reasonable price point, and if academics have the expertise, research skills, mentoring capability and writing acumen to provide consulting, custom research, written content, etc. why has a market failed to form? To some extent the answer has to do with stereotypes: entrepreneurs and businesses still view universities as ivory towers producing knowledge for its own sake and professors as lacking all practical aptitude (“those who cannot do, teach” etc.). And academics tend to become defensive around those working in the “real world”. Worried about being dismissed as “tenured space cadets” they dismiss, in turn, those working in industry as sellouts and slaves to material comforts. These stereotypes are as costly as they are silly. Some academics are, indeed, “space cadets” but many others, having learned to juggle the demands of research, teaching and administrative tasks are every bit as competent as other experts in industry. And, needless to say, many of those spending long hours on the creation and maintenance of small businesses do so not because they have “sold out” but because they are every bit as passionate about their projects as academics are about their own.

The truth of the matter is that there is a market waiting to be created here: many small businesses and entrepreneurs could benefit greatly from the expert advice professors can give and would be shocked to know how reasonably priced such services are. Entrepreneurs would also benefit from the prestige and institutional cache that an affiliation with a university can bring. Academics, on the other hand, crave to expand the practical impact of their work. The two sides simply don’t always know how much they can help each other. Consider the number of universities in the Boston area and the number of startups popping up in the same general vicinity. Why is there almost no cross pollination between the two?

 

Nir Eisikovits is a professor at Suffolk University and Co-founder of Diploun, a company connecting industry with academic expertise. If you are interested in trying out Diploun’s matching services for free, please contact Nir Eisikovits.