Posted: November 17, 2023

Creating new connections between graduate research and industry

Illustration: Ikon-Images: Paul Tong

Illustration: Ikon-Images: Paul Tong

Recent conversations have occurred among research leaders at Penn State about our engagement with industry and research commercialization. With only modest increases in federal support of agricultural and environmental research over the past decade, developing corporate partnerships could be essential to growing both research and graduate training.

While Penn State ranks highly in terms of overall research performance metrics, with several specific research areas ranked in the top 10 nationally, our rankings in research expenditures from corporate funding and commercialization of intellectual property are not commensurate with these other rankings. It has been suggested that the impact of research can be enhanced through corporate sponsorship.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (December 2018) shows a strong correlation between research papers with joint authorship with corporate scientists and the impact score of a particular paper. Consequently, there has been a reexamination of our practices, policies and our culture to promote opportunities to work with industries and commercialize intellectual property developed by our faculty.

While our college has successfully developed corporate sponsorship, there are untapped resources that can enhance our research enterprise and, more importantly, our graduate training. I have seen a trend among our graduate students of coming to graduate school not to enter the academy but to prepare for positions in industry.

Moreover, our students are in strong demand for industry positions, with many receiving offers of employment immediately upon graduation. I feel strongly that this trend will continue and that we should tailor our educational programs to serve our students' interests and work with potential employers to develop skills in our students that make them job-ready upon graduation.

Most traditional graduate programs are research-focused, so we must maintain the standards that prepare students to design experiments, ask thoughtful research questions and critically analyze research data. However, we should also consider programs such as Accelerate to Industry (A2i) to bridge the gaps between traditional academic training and industry-employment readiness. A2i was developed at North Carolina State University and initiated here at Penn State through the graduate school, providing a range of career- and professional- development opportunities for graduate students to build their skills and engage with industry partners at all stages of their graduate careers.

Identifying professional-development activities in collaboration with industry helps to facilitate cooperation, helps to bring recognition of our research programs, and perhaps most importantly, helps us develop a level of trust critical to growth and enhanced research cooperation. I think the same is true for our entrepreneurs and innovators, where corporate partners can help evaluate the commercial application of a given technology and contribute the resources to bring a product to market. A philosophy of relationship-building is critical to success in engagement.

In my own experience and watching others work with corporations, it is important to build a sense of trust and familiarity to instill confidence that the relationship works for both the investigator and the company. Once this relationship is mature and trust has been built, the opportunities for sponsored research agreements should increase and become more lucrative. By starting small, these relationships can grow and develop into meaningful, long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships.

While there are many challenges to developing university/corporate relationships (including intellectual property, facilities and administrative costs, and publication rights, among others), I believe the rewards of corporate engagement can be meaningful. I am encouraged by investments made by our college's Office of Development and Alumni Relations, the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program, and the Penn State Corporate Engagement Center to lower entry costs and begin the engagement process.

By Blair Siegfried, associate dean for research and graduate education and director of the Pennsylvania Agricultural Experiment Station.

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