At the core of academic research is the passion to make a difference, whether that be saving lives, mitigating climate change, or simply making people’s everyday easier and better. But this drive to make change is often hindered by limitations in funding for academic researchers who have to spend significant time applying to secure funds, often with little success. And sadly, without money, ingenious research can’t evolve beyond ideas.
Funding is integral to research; we need money to pay for materials and equipment and, ultimately, to pay for people’s time. In STEM-based research and, increasingly, data-driven social research, material and equipment costs are particularly great. It’s well known that the amount of funding committed to a research field directly corresponds with the development and quality of the field. So how do we get research funded?
The traditional channel of funding for academic research is from governments. Most countries have taxpayer-funded grants for research, which are highly competitive and usually managed by dedicated government departments and research councils that support scientific research.
In the UK, the investment of public funding in academia is managed centrally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which had an allocated budget of £8.6 billion for 2020-21. And in 2021, with increased competition researchers looking to address the Covid-19 pandemic, overall success rates for UKRI grant applications dropped to 21% in 2021. Similarly, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received nearly 50,000 research proposals in 2017 and funded only 11,447 – roughly four out of every five proposals being rejected in a single year.
These aren’t exactly promising numbers – so what other options are there? Some grants are available via charitable foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust and Alzheimer’s Research UK, but these are typically focused on medical research. A more promising avenue for funding is industry.
What are the benefits of industry funding for academic research?
Industry funding enables the acceleration of real-world impact from academic research. All research inevitably presents some form of environmental, economic or social gain, or fulfills a consumer need. An industry partner can help academics achieve the greatest potential impact for their research by providing a more direct route to reach these outcomes.
Companies in industry continually assess market demand, policy changes, consumer and healthcare requirements, and increasingly global sustainability goals, providing unique insight for researchers, thus providing a more informed path for research and development. This path is very results and output-driven, allowing the direct translation of research into products and technologies that public funding often struggles with.
Accessing and receiving industry funding for academic research is not limited to just financing or sponsoring a university lab or PhD project alone. It has a whole host of benefits that academic teams can’t fulfil by themselves alone. A strategic industry partner will have the experience to take research out of the laboratory setting, to validate discoveries on larger, real-world scales, and can eventually inform the adoption by and deployment into everyday applications, again serving the goal of creating impact.
Another huge benefit of industry funding is collaboration. Academia-industry partnerships are built and strengthened through cross-sector research. This allows for unique knowledge exchange between leading researchers across both worlds, which further lends itself to the effective translation of research findings into real-life products. Additionally, this connection between industry and academia can provide access to facilities, equipment and expertise not available on-campus, and vice versa.
Academic-industry partnerships don’t necessarily have to be one-off transactional relationships (although there are times when this might suit), but can be long-term engagements with ideas and resources flowing both ways over the course of years and decades. Establishing such a relationship can not only support a lab financially into the future but, more importantly, can continuously deliver dynamic research to positively impact people’s lives.
Moreover, industry-funded research has career value for continuing in either academia or industry. Industry-funded researchers can end up working for the company or even a competitor down the line, being funded long-term, or paid for consultancy beyond an initial collaboration. It’s not just a way for companies to make a profit, but rather to train and recruit capable researchers who can continually further their success and drive change. But if a career in industry isn’t on your agenda, don’t fret. Having your research funded by companies is in itself a success story, and can help support not just research development but career progression through the academic ranks.
And where can you find industry funding for academic research?
So, if that’s got you interested, you’re probably now wondering how you actually go about finding industry funding. A good place to start is by learning more about the markets and industry sectors that your research fits into, and identifying companies that align with your research interests or active projects. To dig further after a Google deep-dive, look at high ranking industry co-authored papers, companies filing the most patents in your field, and/or by identifying relevant individuals through networking at conferences or on LinkedIn (the social media platform of choice for industry).
Companies, particularly larger multinationals and sector leaders, will have a dedicated research and development (R&D) or external/open innovation department. Information is usually available about these departments on company websites, and they’ll often have an associated ‘open innovation portal’ (or similarly-named interface) through which academics can view the company’s research priorities and submit their profile or new proposals.
There are also funding databases and aggregators, such as ResearchProfessional and the UKRI’s Innovate UK stream. Additionally, specific ‘technology scouting’ or ‘open innovation platforms’ exist through which companies will post ‘calls for opportunities’ or ‘requests for proposals’ to find new research and academic expertise to solve a problem, or to fund new research that helps address technical challenges.
The work we do through Inpart Connect Campaigns does exactly that – it’s a curated matchmaking platform, free to use by academics to find industry funding and partnership opportunities with R&D and innovation teams at leading companies, including Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Syngenta, Reckitt, and Johnson Matthey. These companies and many others use Discover to identify new academic partners, early to late-stage research, technologies, spin-outs, and expertise for consultancy, with over £26million in industry funding made available for new research through the platform since it launched in 2018.
As well as conducting a sector deep-dive, networking, and matchmaking platforms, the best place to start on your journey to find industry funding for academic research is your institute’s technology transfer office, business engagement department, or commercialisation and intellectual property team. These departments are often called different things at each university, and each has slightly different functions. But there will be a team at your institute whose job it is to help academic researchers find industry funding and partnerships.
These teams and departments, who are usually filled with STEM graduates and ex-researchers, are experts in networking, initiating contact with the right people in industry, managing and protecting intellectual property, and negotiating contracts and agreements with companies. And they undoubtedly will have a successful history in starting new partnerships and securing industry funding.