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Current strategies for growth within the food industry include introduction of new products, leveraging brand strengths, acquisitions, and international expansion. The food industry is becoming technologically more sophisticated, necessitated partly by shorter-time-to-market new products. This requires retooling of the R&D operation within the food industry, and one approach might be strategic industry–university–government partnerships.
• Industry. Traditionally, R&D in industry is mostly applied and geared toward short-term needs related to product development, manufacturing, and shelf-life issues. Industry is very capable of conducting basic research, but because of the inherent fast pace and a market-driven organizational structure, basic research is mostly left up to the universities.
• University. The university R&D process is driven by the discovery process and the educational mission of the university. The research thus conducted in the context of graduate education is slow but needs to be tied to the needs of industry. Universities in general are powerhouses of information merely waiting to be tapped into. A shortage of traditional funding opportunities has made universities more receptive to collaborating with industry and even conducting proprietary research.
• Government. Most of the government laboratories conduct basic and/or applied research, and their mission is similar to that of the university. They are increasingly being held accountable and asked to show the relevance and impact of their activities. Since government has designated funds available for research, these labs can be a catalyst for partnerships with university and industry.
• Partnerships. Through industry–university–government partnerships, we can find synergy between the respective missions and link basic and applied research. Through successful collaboration, basic research can become an applied problem-solving exercise, which is the way industry typically operates. These partnerships can also add relevance to the research mission of the university. Students can benefit from internship opportunities in industry, and this can also result in a pool of well-trained scientists for industry. The linkage also keeps industry up to date with advances in the much-needed basic research component and can help nourish life-long learning in the industry.
There are successful models for such partnerships in Europe, where industry, university, and government typically each contribute one-third of the cost of collaborative research. In some funding situations, industrial sponsorship is mandatory. Government funding agencies in the United States are encouraging collaboration between universities and industry. Some of the successful partnerships include the Center for Advanced Processing and Packaging Studies (CAPPS) at North Carolina State University, the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) at Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Center for Advanced Food Technology (CAFT) at Rutgers University. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Research Initiative (USDA-NRI) program has been encouraging collaborative and integrated basic research proposals between universities and industry, and is setting aside up to 20% of the total funding for such proposals. This is a great beginning, and more of the federal funding programs ought to mandate such joint endeavors.
My experience of an academic working with industry has been very rewarding. When the opportunity came to take a sabbatical, I chose to work within the R&D group of a major food company. By the end of my sabbatical, I understood better the needs of industry, and this helped me to become a better teacher. Since then, I have continued to work with the food industry in a consulting capacity. My professional colleagues within the industry and I have jointly advised graduate students on basic research topics fit enough for publication yet very relevant to the business needs of the food industry.
There are many opportunities for the food industry to get involved in an active manner with academia. Food industry scientists can serve as a member of the university/department advisory board, a visiting professor, a guest lecturer, or an external member of a thesis research committee of graduate students. Faculty members can spend a sabbatical working within the industry, or, better yet, the industry can send their scientists to the university on a mini-sabbatical!
There are an equal number of opportunities for the regulatory agencies to get involved with academia. The Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) at the University of Maryland is a good example. And there are several USDA labs, strategically located in close proximity to the university campuses, that are working closely with academia. University personnel can also work with industry and government scientists on proposal review panels.
Of course, there are cultural and organizational challenges that have to be overcome. The inherent comfort levels for taking risk are different. But a general recognition that the mission and the short-term goals are different would help a lot, along with an overall respect for everyone’s role in the partnership. An open upfront communication on issues such as intellectual property issues can help in this regard. Guidelines for successful partnership include development of mutual trust and negotiation in good faith. And, of course, we must be patient and understanding, since we need each other. The rewards are well worth it!
by Swamy Anantheswaran, a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor of Food Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, [email protected].