By Gordon Feller, Contributing Writer
Increasingly, trilateral R&D partnerships — linking government with academia and industry — are considered critical to the success of Silicon Valley. Such mixed partnerships succeed when they link industrial firms with governments with universities, especially as real-world variations of the “triple helix” model of innovation, which is a more common term outside the U.S. To better understand big changes sweeping through the region’s R&D centers, we spoke with some leaders developing new kinds of alliances at three prominent organizations. Each of these are working, in their own ways, to reinvent R&D.
Stanford University: Projects into products
During 25 years at Stanford University, Bill Cockayne founded Stanford Foresight, the foundation of Stanford’s Design Futures. He serves as Academic Director of Stanford’s Silicon Valley Innovation Academy & Innovation Studio.
Cockayne spent the first decade of his career in shipping organizations before moving into government and corporate R&D labs. “Since then, I’ve sat at the juncture of universities, nascent startups and the corporate innovation aspirations,” he said. Each cohort has made significant improvements “as a partner” in just the last decade.
Reflecting on all of those Stanford years, Cockayne says that the university has, “become much better at articulating the value a sponsored project or student team can bring to a large company’s innovation goals. Only yesterday, I sat with a colleague from Stanford who’s having this exact conversation with leading research labs across the globe.” While universities traditionally relied on their reputation to bring partners onto campus, Cockayne thinks that “faculty can now point to projects that converted into actual products and services for sponsors. This focus on a partner’s innovation top-line doesn’t occur at the expense of the university’s mission to educate future leaders.”
Looking ahead at 2022 and beyond, Cockayne is mindful that, “in the last year, I’ve seen an increase in requests from corporate innovation centers for collaboration with startup teams, from the nascent (two kids with a world-changing idea) to scaling teams delivering solutions that complement what the corporations already deliver.” One large European aerospace manufacturer that traditionally looked to internal teams to deliver truly revolutionary new solutions and business opportunities is now interested in having startup teams sitting alongside employees. The goal is compelling: putting passionate, visionary young talent alongside the corporate teams who know how to convert ideas into scaled solutions. “While we’ve just begun socializing this idea to embed startups into corporate innovation centers around the globe, interest from students, startups and corporate leaders has been very positive,” he said.
In cases where a partnership has not succeeded, Cockayne had a simple answer.
“Timing. I’ve never experienced a partnership where timing wasn’t the cause of problems,” he said. “One Swiss-Silicon Valley corporate lab I worked with runs its innovation programs in six months, start to finish. Partnering with universities, which run on academic year and course schedules, becomes almost impossible. Turning to spin-offs, I’ve seen all-too-many sponsored projects fall between the cracks when students head home for the summer, or a regional partner takes extended holidays that kill potential momentum. And timing of funding is a perennial problem whether it’s the need to wait for a grant to open (or be created), trying to get money into a startup while it talks with a partner, or the vagaries of yearly budget planning. The multispeed world we’re experiencing right now is exacerbating this issue.”
Cockayne cites one three-way partnership: Volvo Construction Equipment (CE) is Sweden’s leader within the global construction industry. Volvo CE has been a long-time partner with the Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH) and Stanford University (ME310 course series). Volvo CE collaborates each year with a joint Sweden-California team of students working on an almost-unimaginable design brief. Three years ago, Volvo CE posed a truly mind-bending problem that asked the student teams to rethink the waste generated at construction sites around the globe. After a nine-month collaboration, the Stanford and BTH student teams delivered a potentially world-changing recyclable solution for plastic gloves. (This was before Covid-19 made the single-used plastic gloves an even bigger source of waste.) The Swedish team went on to win The James Dyson Award for its visionary invention.
Since that time, the ReGlove SE team formed a company, built a sustainable business model and is actively speaking with customers and potential corporate research partners in the plastic glove industry. Volvo CE and BTH continue to support the team, which has also gained the support of a regional Swedish government incubator. ReGlove SE is now working with BTH to build the next level solution with the support of government grants.
Tamara Carleton, Ph.D., is the executive director of Stanford’s Silicon Valley Innovation Academy summer program. While teaching in Stanford’s Department of Continuing Studies, she’s also CEO/founder of Innovation Leadership Group, and lead author of the “Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation.” She’s also a research associate at the Foresight & Innovation lab.
“Working with all types of groups — multinationals, government agencies, university labs, startups and more — a crucial lesson is communicating expectations,” she said. “In fact, the same can be said for personal relationships. While most organizational partners do discuss expectations upfront, some of the critical discussion occurs in private channels, while other parts of the discussion are assumed. Questions such as: What do we really want from each other? What will we give to the shared network? When can we add another partner? What if a team wants to spin out all or part of the idea? And so on. Building that clarity and trust early on makes for strong partnerships.”
A second lesson Carleton cites is “to maximize diversity,” which is backed by research on innovation ecosystems.
“Diversity occurs by creating more different combinations — so mixing partners that come from different fields, cultural backgrounds, and such. With more diversity, the broader perspectives your partners can bring to a new opportunity and the greater chances your team can find novel possibilities,” she said.
Carleton is seeing growing interest in mission-oriented research and innovation policy, especially in Europe, which describes taking a systematic view for addressing grand challenges in society. In particular, the teams at Vinnova, Sweden’s national innovation agency, have embraced mission-driven innovation. Carleton notes that she is “part of a growing community focused on moonshots, the pursuit of big ideas with big impact. So as more groups think in terms of innovation missions and moonshots, I feel this will also spur more types of partnerships and, I hope, broader ecosystem sensibility, too.”
Carleton is reminded of the fact that “there are the usual reasons partnerships fall apart, such as poor leadership, changing priorities or unbalanced efforts. Frankly, a good partnership takes commitment to both the outcomes and building the relationship — plus an openness to changing the partnership, as circumstances change.”
Lawrence Livermore: Industry breathes new life into a prototype
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) mission is to make the world a safer place, through the creation and application of advanced science and technologies to real world problems. A large majority of the funding to support that mission comes from the federal government, which invests billions of dollars annually. Combined, the Department of Energy laboratories (DOE) are credited with many successes involving a wide range of research areas, including climate science, advanced manufacturing, materials, biomedical, medical devices, lasers, high-performance computing, cyber security, nuclear weapons security and more.
LLNL’s research successes have often been made possible through carefully constructed partnerships with universities and the commercial sector. These have been designed for success — meaning that they aim, from the outset, to benefit each participating party.
LLNL encourages these partnerships in order that it can couple with (and learn from) the very best that academia and industry have to offer. As an institution, LLNL always strives to attract the best research talent and maintain state of the art research facilities and tools. However, no government funded laboratory can conduct enough research or possess enough funding to do the research necessary to be at the forefront of every facet of every technology. Partnering with outside entities helps keep the laboratory on the cutting edge of technology.
Companies who partner with the LLNL can gain a competitive edge over their competition by leveraging the lab’s world class scientific and engineering talent, unique capabilities and often one-of-a-kind research facilities. Together, the partnership can develop new technologies and new intellectual property that the industry partner can commercialize and bring to the market.
In March of 2020, when hospitals across the U.S. were quickly filling with COVID patients, projections indicated the nation’s total inventory of mechanical ventilators was dangerously low. To address that need, twenty LLNL scientists and engineers assembled an in-house “skunk works” to prototype a simple ventilator design for quick and easy deployment for hospitals in rural or undeveloped areas. They received help from experts in the field, including intensive care unit doctors from the University of California San Francisco, researchers from Colorado State University, associates of Homewood Consulting of Birmingham (Alabama), the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Children’s of Alabama Hospital, as well as the director of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Atrium Health in Charlotte.
A crude prototype dubbed the “Novel Emergency Response Ventilator” (NERVe), was created in a matter of weeks and contained parts that are not used by commercial ventilator manufacturers, to avoid disrupting already thin supply chains. It met the functional requirements of COVID patients requiring mechanical ventilation, including a simple user interface, air flow circuits for inhalation and exhalation and alarms to notify physicians if air pressures get too low. It could operate in a continuous ventilation mode but could also adapt to patients who spontaneously breathe on their own. While the prototype was achieved, NERVe needed to be refined, scaled and commercialized.
North Carolina-based BioMedInnovations (BMI) stepped forward to fill that need. BMI specializes in machines used for tissue and organ perfusion — devices that help blood and other fluids flow through harvested organs to keep them alive outside the body for transplantation or research. BMI began producing the rebranded SuppleVent ventilators, engaging with potential customers and distributing the machines. The project also received a boost from the world of motorsports, through BMI’s existing relationships. NASCAR racing teams Roush Yates Manufacturing Solutions (RYMS) and Joe Gibbs Racing build components for the ventilator. Indy Car engine designer Honda Performance Development assisted with testing and engineering expertise.
Designed for portability, the suitcase-sized ventilator has a simple user interface and large LCD display for monitoring pressures and air flow, circuits for inhalation and exhalation that are controlled by highly accurate pressure regulators, and alarms to alert users if pressures fall out of range or if a system failure occurs.
With an FDA emergency use authorization in place, the ventilator team continues to improve functions for future iterations and explore new approaches for ventilating patients. The team is also exploring gas exchange techniques, methods for capturing and recirculating expelled oxygen and alternate ways to oxygenate the blood.
“LLNL has been called a business-friendly technology giant that’s open for business. We interact with industry often, and we look to create new relationships. Connecting with industry and communicating with leading edge companies is important to us in accomplishing our mission,” said Richard Rankin, who serves as the director of LLNL’s Innovations and Partnerships Office.
To encourage more industry and academic partnerships, LLNL has now, in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), created the Livermore Valley Open Campus (LVOC) with a more porous boundary to the laboratory. There, industry and academia can more seamlessly access LLNL and SNL capabilities. Sitting inside LVOC is the High-Performance Computing Innovation Center, which provides a connection to LLNL’s supercomputers, data science and simulation capabilities. LVOC also houses the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, where collaborations focus on materials and manufacturing solutions.
Hitachi: More than transactional
Most industrial research labs have embraced the idea of an open innovation approach that empowers their researchers to collaborate with academia, national labs and other industrial research labs. Such partnerships provide academics with exposure to industrial-scale problems, real data, and test environments to validate their research. On the other hand, industry gains access to deep, cutting-edge research. For the partnership to succeed, each of the participants must commit the time and resources required for tight collaboration. In addition, it’s very important to build long-term relationships between the research organizations through internships, visiting researcher programs, industrial affiliate programs, research consortia, and the like.
Umeshwar Dayal, Ph.D., the Corporate Chief Scientist of Hitachi and the SVP and Senior Fellow of Hitachi America, thinks that in 2022, the focus will more intensively aimed at addressing the big challenges facing the world: climate change, pandemics, cybercrime, aging infrastructure as well as ensuring equitable access to healthcare, food, clean water and education.
“These will require even tighter collaboration – especially multi-disciplinary collaboration – between academia, industry and government. Rather than solving individual problems in isolation, we will have to tackle these challenges at the systemic level, because they are so interconnected,” he said.
Some are expecting to see a substantial flow of new federal funds for partnerships from the Biden Administration, Dayal’s team among them.
“Yes, we expect to see more investment in key areas such as AI, automation, clean energy, manufacturing, healthcare, education and infrastructure,” he said. “We hope these investments will favor collaboration between academia, industry and national labs. Also, we expect to see a greater emphasis on policies and guidelines to govern the responsible creation and use of pervasive technologies such as AI, robotics, image processing and others.”
Dayal and his team have concluded that “research partnerships are less successful if, and when, they’re purely transactional.” This occurs whenever academia looks at industry or government merely as sources of funding — or if industrial labs don’t invest the time and effort necessary to collaborate closely on research. Another inhibiting factor is differing expectations from the outcomes of the research. This is seen when the industrial partners may expect to own the IP resulting from the research but academic partners expect to be able to publish the results. For the partnership to be successful, these expectations must be aligned from the very beginning.
One recently successful trilateral partnership cited by Dayal is focused on “Responsible AI.” The idea behind it is simple: As AI becomes ubiquitous, Hitachi believes that it becomes important to ensure that AI systems are designed, developed and used responsibly. The U.S. Government, through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has an initiative to establish and promote technical requirements for trustworthy and responsible AI. Hitachi has reviewed and provided feedback to NIST on their publications on Responsible AI, and Hitachi was invited by NIST to participate in a workshop on Explainable AI.
Another successful partnership example offered by Dayal is in renewable energy management. Hitachi considers this to be both a national and a global priority. Through various initiatives, the Department of Energy and California state government agencies (such as the California Energy Commission) are funding research projects with Hitachi that now involve partners from academia, the industry and the U.S. research national labs.
The triple helix — from Japan to the U.K.
For the past few years, Tamara Carleton, Ph.D., has been a visiting professor in design at the Osaka Institute of Technology (OIT) in Japan. This has given her a chance to see more of its work in cutting-edge robotics and other innovation areas. In particular, Carleton says that “OIT faculty, Osaka city managers, and staff at the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry have been collaborating closely on several initiatives,” including launching an open innovation space called Xport (pronounced ‘cross port’) in 2018. Xport supports the broader Osaka mission to become an innovation ecosystem with an active startup scene. Xport has dedicated space in OIT’s city campus and has about 50-member companies working with student teams and professors.
You can find multiple historical examples of “triple helix” partnerships and variations in a volume of essays which Carleton co-edited almost a decade ago called Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World.
For example, one chapter is a case study of the U.K. Technology Strategy Board (TSB). In 2007, the U.K. government set up the Technology Strategy Board with the objective of making the U.K. a global leader in innovation. In 2010, TSB launched a new program to create an open innovation platform that would serve as a “network of networks”. The government provided funding and network support to create TBS as a web-based portal, where users could post innovation challenges, seek experts and partners, and find funding. A year after the launch, the user base was 20% academics, 18% international and 75% SMEs (SMEs are small and medium-sized enterprises; some groups overlap, adding up to more than 100%). Carleton says that “one major learning for TBS was the importance of a community manager, whose job is to foster partnership health and growth.”
Long term commitments at Toyota
Toyota Research Institute (TRI) has partnered extensively with universities, connecting its fundamental research with TRI’s applied research. One key lesson they’ve learned about partnering is that joint projects are far more productive than directed projects. “Instead of identifying a general area of interest and then standing back to watch and learn from the university team, we take a much more collaborative approach. A principal investigator from the university partners with a co-investigator from TRI, and each performs their own tasks and contributes their own deliverables,” said Eric Krotkov, TRI’s Chief Science Officer.
Another key lesson learned at TRI is to, “embrace failure and to view it as learning.” This is important to Krotkov because it encourages, “the risk-taking mindset so vital for achieving breakthroughs rather than making incremental progress. It is also important to maintain project velocity, by shaking off the failure and jumping back in with a new approach.”
Krotkov says that another more lesson which TRI has garnered from their partnerships, “is the importance of the diversity of thought on high-performing industry/university teams. Multiple viewpoints and diverse backgrounds enable teams to challenge conventional wisdom and take novel approaches.”
How and where will these kinds of partnerships change in 2022? Krotkov thinks that getting back together will be key.
“Hopefully, I can begin visiting the universities again in-person … earlier this year, we announced that we expanded our university partners from three to 16. From January 2016 through March 2021, we pushed the boundaries of exploratory research across multiple fields, generating 69 patent applications, nearly 650 papers and three Best Paper awards at top conferences. We sponsored [more than] 98 projects with around 100 faculty members and over 200 students, focusing on important technology advances like transfer learning in computer vision, self-supervised learning on contact-rich tasks and techniques for amplifying human driver performance,” he said.
“In April, we began to push our research even further, with a broader, more diverse set of stakeholders. By investing more than $75 million in the academic institutions over the next five years, we’re making it one of the largest collaborative research programs by an automotive company in the world. We will conduct 35 joint research projects focused on achieving breakthroughs around difficult technological challenges in TRI’s research areas, including human-centered AI, robotics, machine learning, and energy and materials.”
Krotkov is pleased that the Biden Administration has made it clear it backs scientists and support R&D, especially when it comes to one of the biggest challenges we face: climate change.
“This work is critical, if not existential, which is why TRI announced earlier this year that it is committing $36 million to its materials discovery and battery development collaborative university research program over the next four years,” he said. “This investment aims to accelerate the development of new materials for emissions free and carbon neutral vehicles. The faster we can advance our understanding of the battery and fuel cell materials, the faster we will reach a carbon neutral future.”
Some of TRI’s projects have not reached their goals. However, Krotkov said that all the partnerships have succeeded.
“The partners have published hundreds of technical papers,” he said. “Scores of staff, postdocs and interns have moved from the universities to TRI. A primary reason for this success is that both sides have painstakingly selected and made long-term commitments to the other.”