For decades, industry and academia have been engaged in an awkward dance. Industry knows that it needs the innovation that thrives in the university environment. Universities know they could innovate faster and better if they had more research funding.
Boston University hopes its new hire, Marc Scatamacchia, can turn that awkward dance into a beautiful tango.
Scatamacchia, BU’s first associate vice president for industry engagement, says there used to be two big differences that kept the two worlds apart: industry’s lack of interest in research that doesn’t advance its existing product line strategy and align with internal research efforts, and academia’s commitment to its long-standing mission of teaching, open-ended discovery and basic research, and the widespread dissemination of knowledge. But now, he says, this gap is the narrowest it’s ever been and getting narrower.
Scatamacchia (ENG’83), who graduated from BU with a degree in systems engineering and went on to earn master’s degrees from Stanford and MIT, brings more than 20 years of industry experience in strategy and business development to his new role, where he is charged with getting both dance partners out on the floor and helping them learn a few steps. He most recently served as vice president for business development and strategy at the Danaher Corporation, and had previously worked at Philips Healthcare, GE Healthcare, and Nuance Communications. At BU, he will work closely with the University’s Office of Technology Development (OTD).
BU Research talked with Scatamacchia about his job and about the potential benefits of greater industry engagement. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
BU Research: What’s so different about the goals of university research and the goals of industry?
Scatamacchia: Academic research is focused on discovery and the publication of its research findings for the betterment of society, and while most universities rightfully believe they should be compensated if their innovations are used in the commercialization of products, they are typically not driven by a profit motive. Industry’s goals are very different. Industry aims to create commercializable products differentiated in the market by closely held intellectual property or trade secrets that align with its product roadmap strategy and financial goals.
That doesn’t sound encouraging for the task ahead of you.
Well, I think things are changing on both the industry and academic fronts: on the industry side, big companies especially have found it very difficult to foster innovative cultures and environments. Successful companies are very, very good at optimizing operations and financial performance, but these skills can be at odds with creating a culture of innovation that can envision the next great product that may very well cannibalize an existing product with its highly vested product roadmap strategy. Industry has long recognized this dilemma, and for the longest time it was all about how can a company create an innovative, fast-moving, entrepreneurial culture—with bookshelves worth of business books dedicated to solving this problem. But I think there is a dawning realization that there is no silver bullet that allows a company to simply become more innovative. Increasingly, industry is looking to create a portfolio approach to innovation that includes new types of partnerships with other companies, acquisitions, equity investments, and investments in academic research, alongside internal innovation efforts.
On the academic side, universities are recognizing that the widespread dissemination of their discoveries often relies on industrial commercialization. At the same time, there is a need to try and garner more corporate funding, alongside traditional government and foundation funding, to benefit the institution and its mission.
Where does the university come into play?
Companies have to innovate or they cease to be relevant in their markets. One source of innovation in a company’s portfolio is the acquisition of start-up companies that are based around a particular innovation relevant to a company’s strategy, and often based on a discovery coming from academia, but usually after certain commercial milestones have been met. Among these milestones are regulatory approval, technological viability, or manufacturability. But in many consolidated industries, the competition to acquire start-ups is fierce, so start-ups are being acquired earlier and earlier, before some of these milestones have been met, and they are being acquired for higher and higher prices. The acquiring companies end up paying very high premiums for start-ups that can still have very high risk of never developing a commercial product. If you think about a company balancing its innovation portfolio by investment and risk, it increasingly makes sense for the companies to invest directly in the research that was the basis for these companies, and maybe even helping create the start-ups with an ownership stake right at the beginning. This is forcing industry to rethink its relationship with universities and how to access academic research. Academia is a key source of industries’ greatest assets—its people—and playing a broader role with academic research may benefit a company’s recruiting efforts. Similarly, corporate gifts and philanthropy can provide a gateway into accessing the university’s research while befitting the company’s marketing and corporate social responsibility strategies.
What is the view of all that from academia?
In academia, we always have to be mindful of the primacy of our research mission to generate new knowledge to benefit society. Our partnerships with industry cannot unduly restrict our ability to publish our research and seek multiple avenues to bring our discoveries to society. At the same time, we see the benefits of corporate-sponsored research and gifts to enable our discoveries and bring our discoveries to society through commercialization. Industry wants to work with us and we want to work with industry, and both sides increasingly understand and are sensitive to the needs of the other. Academia in general, and BU in particular, is developing new models for working with industry to find common ground. One extraordinary example here at BU is our partnership with Johnson & Johnson. This is a very creative approach to achieving significant corporate research sponsorship developed from a long-standing relationship with BU researcher Avrum Spira and his lab.
How will you work with the University’s Office of Technology Development?
Industry Engagement will work very closely with OTD—we sit in the same building for a reason. OTD focuses on licensing our technology to industry. It is very hard to imagine any sort of relationship with a corporate partner that would not involve licensing at some point. Perhaps Industry Engagement will forge a partnership with a company to sponsor research at BU that results in an innovation the company wishes to license to create a new commercial product. Or perhaps Industry Engagement will work with a company already licensing intellectual property from BU, and based on understanding their corporate strategy, we can find other areas of research to benefit the company that might result in a new gift or corporate sponsorship.
How might things work with Sponsored Programs?
Sponsored Programs is both a great source of expertise for Industry Engagement and another access point to industry. Sponsored Programs has really great experience creating research contracts with industry, and we are lucky to be able to leverage that expertise to develop these new models of working with industry that I mentioned. Government and foundation research grants also frequently have an industry participation component to them. This is a terrific way to increase our outreach to industry, since by definition we share at least one research objective.
How exactly does corporate research get started? Who asks whom to dance?
It goes both ways. Industry is constantly evolving its corporate and product strategies and assessing where its technology and innovation gaps are. They are also very good at figuring out how they can fill those gaps—whether it be from partnering with another company, acquiring another company, or working with academia. When the answer is academia, they will go directly to the researcher or to Industry Engagement.
At the same time, we could be looking very proactively at industry. We have a research mine that’s full of diamonds that industry will find very interesting, and potentially, very valuable: from life sciences and healthcare to data sciences and autonomous systems to biomedical engineering and photonics to many, many others. We have to understand the commercial potential of these diamonds and figure out what markets and industries would benefit from them and which potential company partners could commercialize them. We have to always remember that we have technology that could be of tremendous value to some of these companies.
What about the danger of conflicts of interest?
Well, academia and industry have very different motivations and goals that could lead to conflicts of interest. But at the same time, we have a desire to work together to benefit both sides. Clearly, there is a need for transparency, to clearly articulate and understand each side’s goals and needs, and to establish the rules of the road. The views of researchers towards industry and of industry towards researchers span a wide spectrum. But we have to understand going in that there is no value judgment on industry or on academia—it’s just that motives and incentives are different. As long as we understand these differences, stay true to the rules of the road, and always remain clear and transparent in our communications, we will stay out of trouble.
Are there other universities that you see doing things differently, or better?
The University did put together a task force to determine how best to think about industry engagement at BU and identified some universities that are taking a more holistic and long-term view of how they interact with industry. At the same time, there are technology transfer and industry engagement organizations such as the Association of University Technology Managers and the University Industry Demonstration Partnership that are working to find new ways and establish best practices for universities and industry to work together.
What about the philanthropic side?
As I mentioned, corporate gifts can sometimes be the leading edge of a longer-term, more strategic corporate research sponsorship relationship, or they could be a way to raise awareness of the company to its customers, investors, or even potential employees with sponsorship in events such as SheHacks. These gifts typically come from the companies themselves. Other times, corporations will establish their own foundations that are completely separate from their businesses. These foundations could be used to advance the company’s corporate social responsibility strategy or the philanthropic needs of the markets it serves. In either case, Industry Engagement aims to increase corporate philanthropy to the University in a way that is consistent with the University’s mission.
How does it feel to be back at BU?
I’m really excited to be back. I graduated from the engineering school more years ago than I’d like to admit, and the growth and change of the University is astonishing. The caliber of the faculty and students is really remarkable. I know there is a tremendous opportunity here to help BU really make its mark by taking our technology and innovations and bringing them forward for the benefit of society with our industry partners, while making BU and our industry partners stronger.