Initiating relationships between universities and industry: the clinical link

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Adrian Tootell
University of Wollongong

LinkedIn profile

Elias Kyriazis
University of Wollongong

Samuel Garrett-Jones
University of Wollongong

Gordon G Wallace
University of Wollongong


Analytical academic engagement frameworks have been unable to fully explain commercialisation success (Perkmann, Tartari et al. 2013). Meanwhile, the development of academic and industry links through relationship marketing has been shown to be of importance for understanding how and why relationships between individuals contribute to innovation (Plewa, Korff et al. 2013, Tartari, Perkmann et al. 2014). However, the embryonic stages of relationship development in the university-industry environment have received little attention.

Innovation actors often have differences in the level of complexity and the level of maturity of the technology that they wish to commercialise. Clinicians are a special group as they search for new knowledge from disparate emerging fields such as biotechnology, cell therapy or advanced materials to resolve patient issues. They are uniquely positioned to identify how advances in technology might be translated into customer (patient) requirements and deliver potential new products.

The aim of this study is to understand if the experience and expectation of clinicians wanting to initiate a relationship to commercialise knowledge with universities (in an Australian context) is similar to that of other industry actors working in mature manufacturing industries who are the traditional nexus for commercialisation through integration of market, design and manufacturing knowledge (Gupta, Raj et al. 1986, Ruekert and Walker 1987, Baldwin and von Hippel 2011).

Research methodology:

A comparative case study was chosen to explore the experience of clinicians with that of individuals from manufacturing industries leading innovation activities. The use of in-depth semi-structured interviews resulted in the data for thematic and content analysis conducted using nVivo® (Miles and Huberman 1994, Creswell 2007). The actors involved in the interviews included seven from traditional manufacturing industries and five performing innovation activities as clinicians.


Both clinicians and manufacturers found roadblocks in the form of resource priority within universities and policy/process failures. Clinicians were more decisive when searching for potential partners and had no hesitation in terminating a potential working relationship in the first interaction.

Drivers during the initial stages of relationship development for clinicians and manufacturers were similar in that the initial meeting was most effective when meeting face-to-face as it allowed for the prospective partner to be “sized up” and relationship momentum could be generated if the relationship was worth exploring further. Clinicians did not want a university technology transfer officer as a technology translator. They tended to have a stronger focus on the reputation of a prospective partner and the creation of value through the relationship.

The thematic and content analysis of the limited sample size does not allow for generalisations to be implied. However, the results do provide evidence that the university-clinician relationship should be further explored to understand the magnitude and impact of the differences these actors have to other groups of innovators.

The implications for this study are that in an external environment such as Australia which has contraction of mass production in the manufacturing sector, and poor translation of science to new products, that there are differences worth examining from alternate product innovators such as clinicians, to understand success factors.

Learnings and implications also exist for the internal organisational environments for new product development with the role of the clinician as a nexus for innovation rather than a manufacturer. These include clinicians having a stronger affinity to the values and objectives of universities and a professional ecosystem that provides for the sharing of credible knowledge.


This exploratory study found that initial interactions between clinicians and universities differ to those experienced by manufacturing industries. Although common themes exist, such as both wanting to be the nexus, and initially meeting potential partners face-to-face, the differences present in the internal and external organisational environments demonstrated a contrast in relationship marketing themes that impact on the development of communication, trust, relationship commitment and mutual understanding through the initial stage interactions between universities and industry partners.

Further examination of relationship marketing themes would allow for an understanding of the relative importance of different approaches to initiating new working relationships in different external and internal organisational environments. These insights provide navigation for those wanting to initiate a new innovation working relationship.