Traditionally, research conducted at many universities falls under the category of fundamental research, which is primarily conducted to enhance our basic knowledge in a certain area. In the trenchless technology industry, and regarding the university researchers active in the field, the focus has been much more on the application of knowledge to solve engineering and construction problems.
However, typically the needs in the trenchless realm are discovered and innovations are commonly generated directly from the field, which are the front lines of trenchless technology application. When these needs are discovered, opportunities are created that can then best be solved with the successful collaboration of our Industry’s practical expertise and our university’s scientific expertise through what is called collaborative research. This research also provides extraordinary training opportunities for university students to participate in practical research while interacting with and learning from potential employers.
Industry-university collaborative or cooperative research is valuable to undergraduate and graduate students and post-graduate researchers in multiple ways. First, it provides practical experience for the students working directly on the research project to solve real engineering and construction problems with meaningful and applied solutions. This is the type of problem solving that future employers will expect of its best employees. Secondly, the students and researchers are able to interact directly with Industry collaborators, which helps build their professional networks with potential employers and/or future collaborators. Finally, students not directly involved with the project can also benefit by hearing about the experiences of their classmates, which can motivate them to become more involved in research opportunities when they arise. In the end, this results in more well-rounded students upon graduation that are then able to immediately contribute to solving industry problems.
In addition to the value industry-university collaborative research provides to university students and researchers, there are several other benefits to participating universities and its research faculty. The first benefit is simply research funding, which is extremely valuable to project investigators. Traditional academic research funding is highly competitive as research faculty compete for fewer and fewer federal and state dollars across the nation. Research funding is crucial to establishing and maintaining laboratories and facilities and to providing sustainable funding for graduate students and post-doctoral research associates, who carry the bulk of the load when it comes to research project execution.
The second benefit is awareness of current and future research needs. By interacting directly with Industry practitioners, university researchers are able to determine exactly where their research efforts will be best spent, specifically when it comes to solving actual engineering and construction problems. The final benefit is related to development of intellectual property (IP). One potential deterrent from participating in Industry funded research is the limited opportunity to publish research results due to contractual restrictions. While this could be seen as disadvantage for some academics, they must keep in mind that while publishing may not always be possible, Industry funded research creates ample opportunity for developing IP. This IP can either be shared with the Industry partner or owned out right by the University and research team. This can then result in opportunities for technology licensing, sales, or even start-up companies.
Industry-university collaborative research is also beneficial to the Industry organization or cooperative of companies participating in the research. Depending on the size of a specific company, it may or may not be able to conduct its own internal research & development (R&D) due to a lack equipment or workforce. Universities have specialized equipment and researchers with scientific expertise, which can contribute to Industry R&D needs, typically at a lower cost than private R&D companies. Many trenchless technology companies specialize in equipment and/or materials and may need partners to execute long-term or specialized R&D projects. The cooperation with a University also opens the pipeline to recruit the best students as future employees. Working closely with students provides an opportunity for the Industry to both train and vet future employees in a low risk environment while the student is still in school.
The value of industry-university collaborative research will continue to help drive innovation and development in the Trenchless industry. In addition to the existing research centers, such as the Trenchless Technology Center (TTC) at Louisiana Tech University, there are other possibilities for future collaborative research with the addition government support. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has programs that focus on building collaborative research centers and other opportunities. One such program, known as the Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Program (IUCRC), has developed centers across North America focused on a plethora of topics over the past 10 years. The TTC is currently in the planning phase for a future IUCRC that would create even more opportunities for the trenchless industry to collaborate with leading university researchers dedicated to the advancement of trenchless technology. This will provide even more value to our trenchless industry.