The role of proximity dimensions and mutual commitment in shaping the performance of university-industry research centres

Thomas Lauvås, Associate Professor, Nord University and Marianne Steinmo, Associate Professor, Nord University

It is well established that university-industry collaboration (UIC) can generate important and central contributions for firms and universities through the development of innovations, patents, licences and academic publications. However, in practice, these potential benefits are not always realized, as firms and university partners often find it challenging to collaborate effectively in UICs. Such challenges often relate to the divergent goals of industrial innovations and academic publications, which are difficult to leverage conjointly. These differences are often ascribed to a dichotomy between the opposing logics involving the academic publishing system and industrial commercialization.

This work seeks to address these gaps through a longitudinal study of two university-industry research centres in Norway. We examine how proximity along the dimensions of social and cognitive proximity and mutual commitment enables partners to comply with the research centres’ goals of developing academic publications and innovations. We propose that social and cognitive proximity are equally important for complying with the goals, and we identify how these proximities co-evolve with actors’ activities and interactions over time. By illustrating key activities for the development of social and cognitive proximity, we extend prior research that has shown that commitment is important for successful UIC but provided limited evidence regarding how such commitment should be put into action. Further, our main contributions are linked to the relationships among these proximities where repeated contact (social proximity) and mutual commitment are found to be key enablers for developing mutual understanding (cognitive proximity) between firms and university partners.

Our findings imply that formalizing UIC through a research centre does not in itself automatically lead to increased interaction. Hence, research partners should be motivated to involve industry partners early on and during the collaboration. To develop the proximity needed to support academic research and innovations, industry and university partners might be made aware of the value of forging relationships and mutual understanding, which can be developed through repeated interaction and commitment from both parties.