Building Successful Partnerships Between Business and Academia

We are extremely fortunate in the Western Cape to have four world-class tertiary institutions and two internationally accredited business schools. At our annual Vice Chancellors (VC) Dinner, we were joined by Professor Ivan Turok, Executive Director: Economic Performance and Development, at the Human Sciences Research Council, as well as representatives from the four Western Cape Universities – Prof Tyrone Pretorius (Vice-Chancellor, University of the Western Cape), Dr Max Price (Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town), Prof Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Stellenbosch University) and Prof Anthony Staak (Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Cape Peninsula University of Technology).

This year, we engaged around the theme of promoting research and innovation that will position the Western Cape as the innovation hub of South Africa, as well as how the universities and industry can work together to support regional growth and development. Ivan opened the session highlighting the significance of this theme, saying that it is a topic of enormous possibility and that the positive agenda of bringing business and universities closer together, is both exciting and important.

Referencing some of the most valuable companies in the world such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, Ivan reminded us about the remarkable developments in science and technology over the last few decades, saying that the incredible wealth produced by these companies speaks volumes for the increasing significance of innovation and technology.

With respect to universities, Ivan said that these institutions are critically important as one of the sources of scientific and other forms of research, as well as building the necessary skills/human capabilities essential to developing and applying knowledge. He went on to say that successful collaboration requires universities to not only look for short-term or immediate funding, but rather to have a broader conversation with business in an effort to anticipate opportunities for long-term collaboration. Basic research is arguably far more important with respect to future economic value than the more immediate pay-off derived from applied research.

Speaking from an industry perspective, Ivan emphasised the importance of organisations being less short-termist, and more committed to a bigger agenda. He encouraged business leaders to take a long-term view with regard to investing in R&D and the development of people beyond the immediate needs of business, as well as exploring and developing new products, markets, business models and practices. Ivan said that in building successful and meaningful partnerships between business and universities, a forward and outward looking mindset is required to generate value over the long-term. The latter points, Ivan believes, are critical to establishing successful and mutually beneficial collaborative relationships between business and universities.

Building knowledge and promoting innovation are not linear processes – knowledge from universities cannot simply be taken and applied. Historically, innovation was seen to be a linear process, however, Ivan reminded us that this is not the case. Innovation is an interactive process of diverse knowledge exchange, expertise/insights and real-world data-driven understanding. Exchanging ideas, learning together and building things that are different through a process of cross-fertilisation, is critical in the process of creating new value.

It was interesting to hear Ivan’s thoughts on the importance of proximity. It enables face-to-face contact, learning and sharing, and fosters a sense of shared destiny. He said that this attachment to a common destiny can encourage deeper levels of collaboration, because it brings with it a sense that “we are all in this together” – this mindset is vital to building institutions. He cited the EU’s Smart Specialisation Platform as a dramatic change in thinking about development and creating regional assets.

In closing, Ivan posed the following thought provoking questions to business and universities, as a means toward defining future collaborative activities:

  • Do we know, and have we mapped our distinctive strengths with regards to innovation and cutting-edge practice within business?
  • Does business have a long-term development objective and is there a commitment to investment in basic research as well as applied research?
  • Is there a spirit of entrepreneurial discovery within big business?
  • Are universities encouraging and/or incentivising useful basic research?
  • What bridging institutions exist to support business-university relationships?
  • Do universities consult business and know the distinctive strengths of business when defining their research agenda?
  • Do we have any examples of joint funding of PHDs and R&D projects?
  • Do we monitor and evaluate the partnerships we have, ensuring improvement?

The session concluded with a lively panel discussion with the university representatives, each sharing with us the current activities at their respective institutions, as well as their thoughts on promoting and building successful relationships between business and academia.

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