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Coincidence as Catalyst: The Nexus of Serendipity, Collaboration, and Productivity in U-I Partnerships

Dec. 12, 2023—Collaboration—working together to pursue a mutually beneficial goal—is the heart of university-industry research partnerships. Often, collaboration is sparked by a chance encounter, when the right people are brought together at just the right time, and ideas begin to flow.

Serendipity may create the spark, but it takes trust and persistence to collaborate for research and produce results. Just as chance encounters can lead to collaboration, collaboration allows researchers to build on one another’s work, advancing research productivity. That combination—serendipity, collaboration, and productivity—is the ROI nexus of university-industry partnerships.

Coincidence as catalyst

Serendipitous encounters figure in some of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. That is certainly true in the case of Nobel laureate Katalin Kariko and her long journey developing mRNA. According to an article in The New York Times, Kariko struggled to obtain ongoing funding and lab facilities for the laborious work and saw several research partners come and go.

One who did persist was Drew Weissman. Weissman and Kariko met over a photocopying machine when Kariko struck up a conversation. Weissman shared that he wanted to make a vaccine to work against HIV. “Yeah, I can do it,” was Kariko’s response. The two continued to collaborate until Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech took an interest in their work, which became the basis for two COVID-19 vaccines.

Weissman and Kariko were jointly awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Had the chance exchange at the photocopier never occurred, Kariko’s mRNA breakthrough, and its myriad medical applications, may not have seen the light of day.

Serendipity can be engineered to a certain degree; it pays to be open to opportunities to interact with potential collaborators at professional meetings, academic conferences, and in other settings. Based on conversations with sponsored research “connectors,” UIDP published Networking with a Purpose: The Basics of Facilitated Serendipity to highlight strategies to enable serendipitous conversations. The guide details ways to structure collaborative events and tactics to identify individuals with the know-how and experience to develop purposeful relationships. Knowing how to set the stage for these interactions and how to be a connector yourself can help spark serendipitous moments.

Productive successes

Once partners connect, it is intentional and meaningful collaborations that drive success. Studies demonstrate that individuals working in a collaborative fashion stick to the task longer, perform better, and are more productive (in U-I collaboration in particular).

Collaboration isn’t merely communicating with partners. It’s also pooling knowledge and diverse perspectives that drive ROI. In U-I partnerships, collaboration can range from a single project to strategic, holistic engagement. Strategic partnerships focus on multiple aspects across a continuum, including elements like talent engagement, access to facilities, sponsored research, gifts, and more. Cooperation across the partnership continuum multiplies the benefits for all parties and contributes to more sustainable, long-lasting impact.

Why it matters

Serendipity and collaboration in cross-sector partnerships are more than just alignment—they are dynamic catalysts for innovation and productivity. Understanding how to balance these important facets of U-I partnerships is essential to leveraging all the benefits the relationships offer. Remaining open to chance and committed to meaningful collaboration can boost results and fuel innovation and discovery everywhere.

We want to hear from you. Have you experienced a moment of serendipity that led to an unexpected breakthrough or collaboration? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.