Innovation Alliances: Consortia in the Research Landscape
Sept. 19, 2023—For years, companies and universities have partnered to conduct industry-relevant research through consortia. Governments and foundations are also key players, facilitating these partnerships through long-term, large-scale funding programs like the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC). IUCRCs and similar centers engage one or more universities, companies, and other entities under an overarching research topic, allowing every member to contribute to and reap the benefits of the research conducted.
Bringing more players to the table means more expertise, more resources, and more funding to tackle research questions–and more complexity. How do these large teams function in the research landscape, and is bigger always better?
Role of research consortia
With diverse stakeholders, dedicated funding, and concentrated expertise, consortia offer an excellent avenue to pursue pre-competitive research. Companies contribute funding,background intellectual property (IP) and strategic research insights, shape research directions to maximize impact, and often participate in proposal selection. Universities contribute ideas, researchers at various levels and many times in mulltiple disciplines, facilities, and background IP. Consortia models can vary in the number of universities and companies involved, although they usually include at least one university and several industry partners.
For universities and companies, consortia and collaborative research centers bring benefits and challenges. Challenges include measuring ROI, managing any new IP from the consortium, and underwriting the resources required to maintain such a partnership, i.e., governance and administrative personnel.
For universities, consortia are a way to gain knowledge about industry research priorities and directly expose students to the kind of work they could find in an industry research career. Universities also benefit from a pipeline to sponsored research; faculty can submit proposals and engage talented students in consortia-funded projects. Industry also has much to gain: access to new research exploration, project findings, promising talent, and university research facilities. (For more on IP in consortia, different consortia models, and the benefits and challenges of consortia, see the UIDP member publication, Precompetitive IP & Consortia Quick Guide.)
Consortia and centers in action
An example of the federal consortia model is NSF’s IUCRC program, which boasts over 75 centers nationwide that focus on a range of topic areas, from biomanufacturing to wind energy. IUCRCs conduct high-impact research and help to develop a diverse, skilled workforce while enhancing U.S. global leadership in technology development. These centers engage over 2,000 students annually, with about 30% of them hired by member companies within their respective consortium. Learn more about the program and funding opportunities here.
The Mid-Atlantic Semiconductor Hub (MASH) is a consortium of universities, companies, and government partners that form a regional hub for research, development, and commercialization of semiconductor technologies. The Hub includes UIDP members Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Maryland, Columbia University, the University of Delaware, Boston University, and Princeton University. It is actively seeking industry and government partners and aims to pursue the Manufacturing USA Semiconductor Institutes solicitation upon its release.
In Europe, one example of a consortium in action is the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU), which is a network of 13 universities from across Europe and includes UIDP member the University of Twente. The current focus of the ECIU is ECIU University, a EU-funded platform providing students from any of the 13 member universities an opportunity to collaborate with companies and other organizations to solve problems and address societal issues, particularly those outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Why it matters
Consortia offer advantages to address complex global challenges and increase technological competitiveness. By leveraging the resources of many partners and uniting behind common research interests, consortia are well positioned to tackle tough R&D challenges. Understanding their functions and potential benefits and challenges can help organizations determine if and how to contribute to a consortium and support research topics that may be beyond the scope of an individual company.
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