Stories of Medical Innovation

Industry + Academia: How R&D Partnerships are the Key to the Future of Innovation

When medical device and therapeutic companies work on a new product, there are a few vital—and challenging—steps that take place between developing technologies and introducing them into the real-world.

When Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson, developed the Ethicon Echelon Flex 35 Powered Vascular Stapler, the company needed a way to compare the medical device to a manual stapler to determine potential differences in tissue tension. It turned out that monitoring a surgical stapler’s performance during use is a delicate and tricky task, so Ethicon found a partner to help with research and development of their new product: Wake Forest Innovations, the commercialization arm of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Wake Forest Innovations and Ethicon saw this project—an effort to generate independent data on the performance of the stapler—would be a good pilot project for an R&D partnership between the academic institution and the medical device company. They recruited Adam Hall, PhD, a biomedical engineer with the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering & Sciences, to develop a custom monitoring system that combined wireless pressure sensors and dual-feed video.

Compared to a contract research organization, Wake Forest Innovations offered advanced biomedical engineering expertise through Hall that was crucial in designing the testing setup, as well as relationships with surgeons from Wake Forest Baptist to perform the actual testing. Without these skills and relationships, the stapler project would have been more challenging, if not impossible, to execute.

Academic-industry partnerships like this are becoming increasingly common as a convergence of factors have made collaboration more necessary—and more beneficial—to both parties.

Specialization Drives R&D Partnerships

Over the past 30 years, the economic landscape affecting both academia and industry has changed. Many sectors of industry face greater competition from emerging economies and a technological arms race. At the same time, as medical science provides new treatments and technologies, a host of challenges faces medical innovation.

This shifting landscape has led to R&D needs becoming more specialized, changing the way pharmaceutical and medical technology companies must operate. They can no longer support legions of on-staff scientists to conduct the research necessary to develop treatments and products to address the complex problems modern medicine faces today.

As companies seek new collaborations to support their R&D needs, academic institutions like Wake Forest Baptist are finding mutually beneficial ways to help meet those needs.

To facilitate these R&D partnerships, Wake Forest Baptist created a specialized group—Wake Forest Innovations—featuring staff with business and research expertise, one that could focus on forging links between an academic medical center and potential industry collaborators. This unique model serves to bring researchers and clinicians together with industry to share expertise, knowledge, risk and reward at all stages of product R&D.

“We can maintain specialists in very narrow areas of expertise, like gene-based therapies, biomedical engineering and others,” explains Heather Ramsay, associate director of alliance management for the Center for Industry Research Collaboration at Wake Forest Innovations. “Companies can’t support that kind of specialization in-house, so they want to work with people in academia who have specific knowledge and skills.”

In addition to scientific research and discovery, companies are also turning to academia to collaborate on product development and intellectual property, recognizing academia more and more as a source of innovation.

Such relationships ultimately benefit industry because through the ability to access early-stage pipeline programs and products, rather than devoting their own resources to supporting internal R&D programs.

“It reduces the burden on R&D to fill the product pipeline,” says Jason Kralic, assistant vice president of technology innovation at the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization of Wake Forest Innovations. “Instead of inventing something from scratch, industry partners can rely on us.”

The History of Academic-Industry Collaborations

While examples of collaboration between academia and industry can be found going back many years, for decades these collaborative partnerships were not the norm.

During the 1980s and 1990s, pharmaceutical and medical technology companies employed large, in-house discovery departments. Entire staffs of scientists and researchers were charged with keeping the development pipeline full and moving products to the market to generate revenues. When the pace of internal discovery slowed and product pipelines began to shrink, companies utilized acquisition to maintain their portfolios.

During that span, academic institutions were largely focused on scientific discovery for discovery’s sake. Supported by government grants, academic scientists patiently researched, studied and taught, with the end goal of publishing their findings in scientific journals.

But with grant funding on the decline in recent years, due to fiscal policy at the state and federal levels, industry is also facing increasing pressure from a complicated medical technology landscape.

“Many of the unmet needs today are for complex—and costly—conditions without easy solutions, like cancer and neurodegenerative disorders,” Kralic says. “Companies are feeling the pressure from the increasing costs of health care, which creates a challenging environment in which to develop and market health care technologies.”

This has led to companies and academic institutions pursuing more formal relationships that leverage their unique capabilities and resources. [Read an example.]

Embracing the Shift Toward R&D Partnership

This trend toward academic-industry partnerships is one of the reasons Ramsay and Kralic joined Wake Forest Innovations. Both held high-level positions at private companies before joining the organization in 2016. Kralic was a senior business development leader with experience in R&D, licensing and company creation, and Ramsay served at multiple levels in contract research organizations.

Now they are taking their industry experiences and helping to bridge these valuable R&D partnerships through Wake Forest Innovations, which develops collaborations between researchers and clinicians of Wake Forest Baptist and industry partners through two centers—the Center for Industry Research Collaboration and the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization.

“When you have collaborative innovation, it facilitates the sharing of knowledge and capabilities, which accelerates translation of discoveries into products,” says Kralic. “We get there faster together.”

While the speed of product development is certainly enhanced, it is not at the expense of big-picture understanding. That’s where the beauty of these partnerships lie, as all parties draw on each other’s strengths to yield positive results.

Academic researchers’ exploratory mindset allows them to see things differently, in ways their industry partners may not.

“Sometimes, when a drug is being developed for a specific use, academic researchers can see other possibilities,” Ramsay says. “They might discover the drug could be used to treat an orphan disease, or modified to make it more affordable. They can explore the full application of the product.”

R&D partnerships work both ways, of course, and academic researchers also learn from their industry counterparts. Kralic’s group solicits feedback from industry partners during the product development process.

“We get feedback to validate our assumptions about unmet needs and how our products will address them,” he says. “Through our dialogue with industry, we improve our product profiles and development plans, as well as gauge interest from potential partners.”

Academic researchers also learn to think about their work in terms of real-world applications, in addition to answering scientific queries.

“As they work together, industry and academic partners understand each other more,” says Ramsay. “They understand each other’s goals and priorities, what they are all trying to accomplish and become more accustomed to working together.”

This understanding fosters greater trust and communication, which encourages more efficient and successful collaborations.

Making a Difference Through Collaboration

Traditionally, some academic faculty have viewed industry relationships with a measure of skepticism.

“Some faculty are concerned that the desire for profit could be at odds with their motivation for discovery,” says Ramsay. “But as they gain more experience in these collaborative partnerships, researchers realize they have some unexpected benefits.”

The key benefit is the ability to make real progress toward finding treatments and products that benefit society. By sharing knowledge and leveraging respective capabilities and resources, industry and academia are able to develop solutions more quickly.

“You see your research translated into treatments or products that make a difference,” says Kralic. “You get there through collaboration.”

Academic researchers are also finding that companies often value their methods and share the same end goal for the research.

“Industry is willing to listen to your ideas. They don’t want to give orders,” says Ramsay.

On a more pragmatic level, industry partnerships provide academic faculty access to resources they might not have otherwise had.

“You can get the technical access or financial support that could help you achieve your academic goals,” Ramsay says.

Opening Doors for R&D Opportunities

As academic-industry partnerships in biotechnology and health sciences continue to increase, Ramsay believes that these relationships will become more established, as they are in computer technology, environmental science and other fields.

“Companies like IBM, Microsoft and General Electric have been working collaboratively for decades,” she says. “They have combined their efforts to share research facilities, funding and staff and to create a culture of nimble thinking.”

While some collaborative work has occurred in the past, it typically has been smaller in scale and characterized by a one-way flow of information from academia to industry.

“What is changing is the interactive approach to complicated problems,” Ramsay adds. “Academia and industry are combining their assets to answer the immediate question at hand, but in the end walking away with additional areas of exploration they can pursue, expanding science as a whole.”

As Wake Forest Innovations works to facilitate more partnerships with industry, it will result in open doors for Wake Forest Baptist faculty.

“The shift toward academic-industry partnerships is creating new opportunities in collaborative innovation and translational science,” says Kralic. “For those of us at Wake Forest Innovations and the faculty we work with at Wake Forest Baptist, we aim to be at the forefront of this shift. We want to see our research make a difference.”

To explore opportunities for academic-industry partnership in your research, contact Wake Forest Innovations by calling +1.336.713.1111 or by emailing