IPRIMEd for Collaboration
University of Minnesota’s IPRIME creates opportunities for academia-industry collaborations for cutting-edge research on materials.
What do you get when industry collaborates with academia? “A win-win situation,” says Bob Lewis, who is part of a unique university-industry partnership program on materials, at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. The exchange reaps benefits for both partners. Industry learns about cutting-edge scientific and technological advances, gains influence in the direction of research, and gets early access to Ph.D. students as future employees. In turn, university faculty get a ready source of “hard problems” that fuel their research, as well as funding; while graduate students gain access to potential employers, along with training and exposure to the industrial research process.
The University of Minnesota has carved out a niche within this academia-industry exchange. Lewis, director of technology transfer for the Industrial Partnership for Research in Interfacial and Materials Engineering (IPRIME), explains the program’s focus: “Our two-way knowledge exchange brings the University of Minnesota’s collaborative culture to the industrial arena to strengthen research in both the academic and industrial sectors. We offer highly interdisciplinary, precompetitive and nonproprietary research programs that focus on the fundamental science that undergirds industrial processes and products.”
This model has worked successfully since 2004, with IPRIME bringing together industry scientists and engineers from about 40 domestic and international companies for hands-on collaborative research with 46 university faculty members and more than 200 Ph.D. students. IPRIME’s research is spread across seven program areas: polymers, coatings, biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, nanomaterials, electronic material and flexible electronics. According to Lewis, IPRIME’s breadth of program areas allows its industrial partners to broadly scan future technology in its earliest stages.
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This fostering of a culture that “knows how to work with industry” began in 1988 with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Interfacial Engineering (CIE), which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). IPRIME has built and expanded on CIE’s success. “As the NSF funding ended, the CIE faculty and industry counterparts strongly encouraged the university to continue the research partnerships,” says Lewis. He credits the university’s faculty, saying, “We have a history of older faculty modeling for younger faculty the importance of doing collaborative work with industry, and how it helps their career and their research.” Lewis notes the University of Minnesota faculty are known for co-authored, collaborative papers. IPRIME builds on that symbiotic culture and encourages interdisciplinary research across departments and colleges.
He contends, the open nature of IPRIME’s research gives the program an important advantage. “First and foremost, our pre-competitive research framework positions us well before a product is created and, therefore, makes it easy for IPRIME companies to get involved quickly, without the often-inevitable delay of lengthy legal-staff evaluation. IPRIME’s approach is ‘let us do the fundamental science and engineering, and let companies bring products to market and patent in their area of practice,’ ” says Lewis.
The diversity of IPRIME member companies includes obvious competitors like American and French oil and gas companies ExxonMobil and Total S.A., respectively, as well as unrelated firms like Valspar, an American paints and coatings manufacturer, and Medtronic, an Irish medical device firm. “It makes for an interesting nexus of relationships that happen among IPRIME companies,” says Lewis.
The most surprising outcome of bringing together companies from completely different market spaces is how it contributes to innovation. “At our annual meetings, companies take a first look at leading-edge research through workshops, two-night student poster sessions and research presentations by Ph.D. students,” says Lewis. “However, members tell us, it’s the ‘chance connections’ with scientists and engineers from other industries they find most rewarding and surprisingly helpful to their work. We like to say, IPRIME ‘accelerates serendipity.’ ”
Being part of technical advisory committees enables industry collaborators to influence the overall direction of IPRIME’s research. “Industry feedback has taken faculty into completely new areas. It keeps them grounded in what’s happening outside academia. For example, industry input took the polymers program in the direction of more water-based systems. And, industry suggested a focus on gravure coating, a well-established but not fundamentally understood industrial process for high-speed printing,” notes Lewis.
In fact, IPRIME has its eye on 3D printing for future research programs. “We offered a workshop on 3D printing additive manufacturing, and the room was packed,” says Lewis. “We will stay on top of this ‘hot spot,’ and follow advances in pharmaceutical materials, biotechnology and flexible electronics.”
Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.