With corporate research partnerships rising, Princeton creates industry contracting team

Written by
Daniel Day for Princeton Research/CEFR
Jan. 16, 2024

Research collaborations between Princeton and industry continue to grow, and the volume and complexity of the associated agreements has increased. To handle these matters, a specialized team has been set up in the Office of Research and Project Administration, in partnership with the Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations. “These streamlined administrative procedures will serve Princeton’s expanding corporate partnerships well,” says Dean for Research Peter Schiffer.

As Princeton’s innovation initiatives have led to a growing number of new research collaborations between faculty and companies, the University has seen a parallel increase in the volume and complexity of the associated agreements.

Balancing the needs of the principal investigator, the University and the company within these agreements, and getting contracts in place in a timely manner, has become a progressively intensive activity that requires specialized expertise and a dedicated team. One is now operating in the Office of Research and Project Administration (ORPA), in partnership with the Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations (CEFR). Both offices are units of the Office of the Dean for Research.

While CEFR handles the development of relationships and matchmaking with companies, ORPA handles the negotiations and execution of agreements between the University and the outside entities funding research.

As ORPA Executive Director Elizabeth Adams notes, for decades, federal funding has primarily fueled research activity at the University. However, she said, “Over the past 10 years, Princeton has made significant investments in engagement with companies.”

That’s directly connected to the Princeton Innovation initiative, which aims to facilitate and promote innovation, entrepreneurship and partnerships to enhance the quality and impact of research and teaching at the University as well as improve the quality of life for all.

From Fiscal 2014 through Fiscal 2023, the number of new research awards involving industry collaborations increased 99 percent at Princeton.

“That’s evidence that faculty members are eager to collaborate with industry,” said CEFR Executive Director Coleen Burrus. Added Adams, “Our students want connections to these companies, and job skills.”

With corporate partnerships, “industry tends to look for creative and sometimes unorthodox ways to structure the agreements,” Adams said, and the contract terms companies expect can differ greatly from those of the grants the University receives from the federal government and foundations. “We work hard to meet the needs of the companies while also staying true to the University’s mission and policies.”

Adams, Burrus and members of their teams recognized a clear demand for staff specializing in facilitating corporate contracts.

“After we both attended a UIDP meeting in late 2022, we agreed in principle to change the work model in ORPA and CEFR in handling agreements with industry,” Adams said, and they started a pilot program in early 2023.

Within ORPA, Adams hired Anne Ochiai and Liz Powell to focus on negotiating corporate agreements. Ochiai and Powell came to the University with deep experience in industry contracting at Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively. Ochiai and Powell work closely with their corporate engagement colleagues. With nearly a year’s experience behind them in the pilot work model, Adams and Burrus are now formally establishing the industry contracting initiative.

“Once we were able to get Anne and Liz on board, we pretty much overnight changed the work model,” Adams said. “We’re really excited about the model maturing and blossoming in 2024.”

 Among other things, the new model established regular communication for planning and managing industry and cross-sector relationships.  It also allocated resources to enhance systems and processes, prioritizing industry engagement and funding.

 “These streamlined administrative procedures will serve Princeton’s expanding corporate partnerships well,” said Peter Schiffer, dean for research and a professor of physics. “We’re making it easier for our faculty and corporate colleagues to start projects, helping them explore solutions to real-world problems and make other advancements for the benefit of all.”

The new system is more efficient, and early feedback suggests that corporate partners as well as faculty appreciate the streamlined process, Adams said.

“The industry contracting initiative is a great example of how campus colleagues can identify changing conditions, sense approaching opportunities and challenges, and work together to improve operations,” she said.

“This is a win for the Princeton Innovation initiative and for our expanding group of corporate partners,” Burrus said.

The contract initiative, she said, will particularly well serve expanding the University’s Corporate Affiliate Programs (CAPS), which allow companies to have deep and substantive dialog with Princeton faculty to explore research opportunities that could contribute to solving critical challenges faced by both  industry and society.

“These new procedures we’ve developed,” Burrus said, “are right in step with Princeton’s focus on innovation and engaging in the regional ecosystem.”