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University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships
University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships

Corporate Research Alliances


The newly established Corporate Research Alliances (CRA) unit within Innovation Partnerships is gearing up to provide a gateway for research partnerships between U-M faculty and industry.

The unit supports and streamlines the establishment, implementation and ongoing management of research collaborations by providing faculty-facing support to convert industry relationships into successful sponsored project agreements. These partnerships will range from large-scale, multi-faculty research partnerships to focused, individual faculty-led sponsored research projects.

Delivering on CRA’s directives will be a team with the unique combination of expertise needed for successful multi-dimensional partnerships.

Heading the unit as Director of Corporate Research Alliances is Chris Fick, who most recently was Senior Director of Health Sciences at the U-M Business Engagement Center. Through previous roles as a member of licensing teams within technology transfer offices, including at U-M, as well as experience in the industry setting, his expertise spans intellectual property, business development, and licensing.

Fick sat down for a Q&A to talk about how CRA can meet the needs of faculty and industry, what it’s up to now and how the team will plug into the Innovation Partnerships ecosystem to enhance opportunities for all parties involved.

What is the need for a group like CRA?

It’s often a challenge when trying to match-make between prospective industry partners and university faculty investigators. You can very clearly on paper have aligned interests and expertise, but getting from that point to what an actual research project, or scope of work, looks like, can be challenging on a number of levels.

For a faculty member, there are a number of important considerations, not the least of which is continuing to maintain funding for their lab, their graduate students and postdocs, and having projects that ultimately help their case with publication and the larger NIH and NSF grants.

On the industry side of things, there’s a real need to outsource or collaborate on research, because it’s impossible for a company to have all of the expertise needed in-house when pushing the boundaries of novel ideas and discovery. But companies tend to have short timelines to set up and explore research questions. And there’s a cost involved beyond the cost of research itself, and that’s a cost of time relating to initiating and managing relationships with the university and faculty partners.

In order for both groups to come to a place where it’s mutually beneficial, it’s not just about the big picture alignment of expertise and overlap. It’s really, ‘ok now that we are getting down to a project-level discussion, how is this project going to help the company with their goals, and at the same time, help the faculty member with their goals?’. That’s where we come in. We want to help streamline some of these discussions, and where I think the more focused, front-end effort we provide will help with those challenges.

Can you talk more about how the front-end approach will benefit faculty?

We recognize that there is a real need for a faculty-facing office that can provide support to faculty very early in the process of exploring industry sponsored research. Even as early as the ideation process before approaching an industry partner, or early in a relationship. It’s important to define the overall value of what the faculty are bringing to the table in a research relationship and what they want to get out of it. The value that faculty bring includes expertise and laboratory capabilities, and may also include other elements such as background intellectual property and talented graduate students who may ultimately transition to work for the industry partner.

As part of those early discussions with faculty, we can provide support and expertise, particularly relating to intellectual property considerations. In these efforts, we also work very closely with our partners across campus including Fast Forward Medical Innovation and the College of Engineering’s Office of Corporate Relations by providing them with direct negotiation capability and support.

You mentioned the cost of time involved on the industry side. Can you talk more about that pain point?

At a high level, the alignment of interests between a faculty member and a company may be apparent, but getting a research plan in place can take quite a bit of time and can be quite iterative in terms of having an ongoing dialogue. Add to this the time it may take to negotiate the terms and conditions of the actual sponsored research agreement, and the investment of time is not trivial.

As a result of this, a number of companies are homing in on just a handful of strategic university partners where multiple research projects with a variety of faculty investigators across a number of disciplines and areas of interest are made possible in a more efficient manner through a master research agreement. This arrangement eliminates the need to renegotiate intellectual property and other key contractual terms for each research project funded by the industry partner and allows for the focus and efforts to be placed on the research and the relationship.

“this arrangement…allows for the focus and efforts to be placed on the research and the relationship.”

How can the CRA team alleviate the time cost involved?

We as the university are continuously improving upon our ability to understand and align our research capabilities and strengths in key areas of relevance to industry, and from there target the types of companies we align with to form larger strategic relationships. For emerging research partnerships, the CRA team will have dedicated personnel with expertise and capabilities to explore, pursue, and ultimately negotiate master research agreements. For existing research alliances, the CRA team has dedicated personnel to support the growth and maintenance of the relationship with activities that include but are not limited to facilitating calls for research proposals.

More broadly, having the CRA team under the Innovation Partnerships umbrella, which has visibility of inventors and their invention disclosures, and which also includes new ventures and startups, is a big advantage for industry and faculty alike. Many industry partners now have an interest in seeing our startup pipeline and being involved in these newly launched companies, in addition to faculty research partnerships.

Coming back to the cost of time point, the greater the return that a company can receive, the more logical it is for them to make that investment of time. That’s why the more that Innovation Partnerships has to offer and the more expertise we have in-house, the more streamlined we can make those offerings. It’s not only in terms of providing support to startups and our licensing support, but also having corporate research alliances as part of that broader team, it’s really a critical matter of both efficiency and effectiveness.

“… having the CRA team under the Innovation Partnerships umbrella, which has visibility of inventors and their invention disclosures, and which also includes new ventures and startups, is a big advantage for industry and faculty alike.”

What is CRA up to right now?

Priority number one right now is working to build out the team. Within CRA, we have two subunits. One is an alliance management team that comprises several individuals that were in these roles in our previous structure and work with some of our large research partnerships. And then we are hiring for a completely new unit which is corporate research support. Within that unit we are looking at three specific domains – life science, engineering and physical science, and software.

The focus and emphasis for the corporate research support unit is faculty support. So once we have that unit built out, we will be going around as much as we can to U-M’s different schools, colleges and departments to promote what we have available as a resource.

There’s an immediate need that we are already seeing that we’re filling, and that is with faculty that have been working with the licensing team because they have invention disclosures. But because of those relationships they have with our office, they also seek to engage our office to talk about potential sponsored research opportunities that are completely unrelated to any inventions or background intellectual property that they have. And while our licensing team has assisted with these cases as much as is possible, the CRA team will take over these efforts as a unit specifically dedicated for that purpose.