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Build master agreements for expansion with a careful start, ongoing monitoring

Excerpted from the April 2024 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Master agreements between universities and their corporate partners come in many shapes and sizes. More complex than one-off research deals, the master agreement, in its highest form, sets the framework for long-term collaboration across an array of elements, including clinical trials, sponsored research, experiential learning for students, licensing, the creation of spinouts and startups, and the ground-up development of technology.

But what happens when a PI retires, or a master agreement doesn’t have the structure to produce outcomes? Does an agreement have a well-defined starting point with obvious objectives and funding mechanisms, or is it cloudy? And how do partners avoid pop-up contract renewals, robbing them of the timeline needed to plan out a meaningful extension, potentially failing to capture opportunities that are otherwise right in front of them?

Those questions, and many others, were among the key topics discussed among corporate engagement and tech transfer personnel attending the “Mastering Master Agreements” breakout session at the annual AUTM conference in San Diego. It featured Jonathan Tyler, director of commercialization for physical sciences at the University of Utah; Chelsea Ex-Lubeskie, Innovation Connect manager at the University of Kentucky; and Dr. James Bowen, executive director of corporate alliances at the University of Pennsylvania.

All three concurred that master agreements have to be tailored, not off the rack. Since each industry partner is unique, the agreements that outline their engagement with a university should be as well. Tyler, Ex-Lubeskie and Bowen also agree that master agreements should be constructed or renewed with growth in mind. As a university and a private partner work together, possibilities for further engagement should organically develop and be embraced.

But whereas Tyler and Ex-Lubeskie function in a “neighborhood” environment where management of master agreements is spread out across multiple departments, Bowen is part of the centralized Penn Center for Innovation, which handles master agreements across all 12 of the university’s schools.

Whatever a university’s structure, the master agreement is the linchpin of many corporate engagements, and when it comes to building them, amending them, renewing them, and revisiting them, there’s plenty of agreement on making sure they work effectively for both sides of the partnership.

Excerpted from the April 2024 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at