Most partnerships between academic researchers and instrumentation firms don’t result in commercial products. But when they do, everyone can win: The instrument maker profits, the researcher gains prestige, and the analytical sciences get a new tool.
That’s what happened when John Engen, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University, convinced the liquid chromatography expert Waters Corp. to help him design a low-temperature ultraperformance liquid chromatography system coupled with a mass spectrometer for protein characterization and drug development.
The instrument that resulted—the nanoACQUITY UPLC System with HDX Technology—has a refrigeration box that allows chromatography to take place at 0 °C. The setup enables researchers to study proteins through a technique known as hydrogen-deuterium exchange—or HDX—mass spectrometry.
Engen says he started working with Waters in 2005. Before then, Engen’s lab built its own equipment for the HDX technique, but what he and his students designed “wasn’t optimized,” he says. Waters’s experts reengineered the equipment. Engen and his students troubleshot the designs and wrote much of the operating software. “I had six or seven prototypes at one time here in my lab,” he says.
In 2011, Waters introduced the low-temperature HDX system. Now other major instrument makers—including Thermo Fisher Scientific and Bruker—offer HDX systems, Engen says. “It took a few months to perform an HDX experiment” 10 years ago, he says. “Now it takes a few days.”
Not every collaboration between academicians and instrument makers yields such impressive results, but most are still important to both parties. Principal investigators get access to the latest analytical equipment, discounts on purchases, and research grants. Their students get funding and training from the instrument firm.
Meanwhile, instrument firms get an inside track on intellectual property developments and the latest analytical methods, access to students who may become dedicated users or future employees, and an open door to academic labs where they can show off their equipment to other customers.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship—but one that can have pitfalls. Misunderstandings can arise about what analytical equipment can do. Joint projects can lose funding when they don’t seem to have commercial potential. And academics can be called out for giving up intellectual property developed in their labs.
University colleagues accused Northeastern’s Engen of the latter. “I signed my intellectual property over to Waters, and I was criticized for it,” he recalls. Engen points out that others had published details on HDX, so the technology wasn’t patentable. Some HDX method patents he developed may yet yield royalties for Northeastern, but making money was not his goal.
“My research was primary,” Engen says. “I needed the instrument as badly as Waters needed to make money. Without Waters, we’d do 10% of the work we are doing now. ... I just want to see the science benefit people.”
Other academics and their institutions are often more concerned about intellectual property rights than Engen is. According to Betty Woo, vice president for scientific collaboration and strategy at Thermo Fisher, treatment of intellectual property developed jointly with an academic partner is often the most contentious part of setting up a relationship. “People have become more savvy on this subject over the last decade or so,” she says.
Thermo Fisher will spend about $1 billion on research in 2018, Woo says. About 25% of that is dedicated to breakthrough innovations. “Some portion” of the 25% will be with academic partners, making Thermo Fisher a good source of funding for postdocs, she notes.
However, the cash comes with specific end points, Woo points out, because partners need to stay on task to deliver results that advance commercial instrument development. “We check in with our partners often,” she says. “Projects can go rogue.”
Partnerships also come with some strings attached. “Academics like to publish their results,” Woo says, and she understands their need to do so. But particularly in the earliest stages of a project, publishing can jeopardize patent claims. Thermo Fisher has walked away from academic collaborations when it couldn’t come to terms on when results were to be made public, Woo says.
The instrument maker has also negotiated options to drop projects if they don’t look like they will pan out. “At some point in product creation, we look at commercial parameters,” Woo says. “Sometimes we realize a product will cost too much to manufacture, or we realize it may not be the right time for it.”
Many instrument makers have formal programs to recognize cooperation with academic researchers. Waters, for instance, lists more than 30 scientist partners on its Centers of Innovation program website. “Think of our Centers of Innovation as thought-engagement programs,” says Eric Fotheringham, who directs the program at Waters. “Each partnership is different and unique.”
Northeastern’s Engen leads one such center to advance protein separation technology. Ohio State University chemist Vicki Wysocki leads another targeting the use of mass spectrometry to characterize protein complexes for drug development. Waters often provides instruments to help these scientists further their research, Fotheringham says. The firm sometimes also sponsors symposia at a center to help advance research and student education.
In return, Waters scientists get access to university researchers whom they can query on new trends, Fotheringham says. The centers also provide a customer showcase for Waters’s instruments. “There’s no substitute for seeing our instruments and software put to use in the way we intended,” he says.
JEOL USA, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s JEOL, operates a similar Center of Excellence program at Northwestern University; the University of California, Irvine; and the University of Pennsylvania. CEO Peter Genovese refers to the program as a “farming” effort.
Academics at JEOL’s centers get new instruments and associated software to advance their research. Their feedback helps JEOL refine instrument technology. “We learn so much from our academic partners,” Genovese says.
Researchers at these centers and in other, less formal partnerships develop “a lot of new techniques” with JEOL, Genovese says. The effort may also lead to a new nuclear magnetic resonance imaging probe or advances in aberration correction for a transmission electron microscope.
Eric Stach just arranged to install JEOL’s Neoarm low-voltage transmission electron microscope at Penn’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology. He characterizes the microscope—the first of its type installed in the U.S.—as a versatile and costly instrument. However, the university got a “substantial price break” under the JEOL center agreement, says Stach, a professor of materials science and engineering.
“We just turned it on a month and a half ago,” Stach says, noting that it will serve a large number of faculty and students doing two-dimensional atomic-level analysis of materials for use in optics, electronics, and catalysts.
The new installation will also be a showcase for JEOL. But JEOL “can’t just snap their fingers and come in, and they can’t take a lot of time” to show the instrument to potential customers, Stach says. Their agreement, he points out, is based on mutual respect.
Another Japanese instrument maker, Shimadzu, does joint research with academic partners, provides donations for student scholarships, and makes grants to new professors equipping their labs under a program called the Shimadzu Partnership for Academics, Research & Quality of Life, or SPARQ. The program is “a corporate-directed program. It goes to our heritage to partner with academia,” says Patrick Fromal, sales vice president for the firm’s North American subsidiary.
One partnership involves the University of Texas, Arlington. In 2012, Shimadzu funded a $6 million analytical chemistry center at the school. The lab gives undergraduate chemistry students access to a wide range of instruments and aids environmental and other faculty research projects.
Some of the research conducted at the university has come back to benefit Shimadzu. Last year the firm introduced a trace-moisture analysis system that uses a gas chromatography method developed with Daniel Armstrong, a University of Texas, Arlington, chemistry professor. Armstrong and Shimadzu also brought in MilliporeSigma to develop a column for the system, which Shimadzu now sells as the Nexis GC-2030. Shimadzu wouldn’t have had a shot at developing the system without the Texas relationship, Fromal acknowledges.
Though industry-academic partnerships can experience false starts over project expectations or instrument capabilities, they usually work out to everyone’s satisfaction, Fromal says. Scientific instrument makers, including Shimadzu, are always looking for new academic partnerships. “We have no limit to the number of institutions we want to work with,” he says.