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How to foster innovation through strategic partnerships

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Partnering with universities, colleges and other businesses can be an excellent way for your company to become more innovative. It can help you generate ideas, develop products and save costs.

But strategic partnerships can be tricky. How do you share intellectual property? What should you do to ensure your company’s interests are protected in the partnership? Which are the best organizations to partner with?

Uncertainty about such questions can make some entrepreneurs hesitate about partnerships. But the potential impacts can be a game-changer for your business. Here are some tips on strategic partnerships for innovation.

1. Work with universities that want to share research

Universities and innovation go hand in hand. So it makes sense to partner with them to tap their research to come up with new products, processes and technological advances.

Some universities are more open than others to partnerships with business, says Paul Preston, Associate Director for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at the Conference Board of Canada.

“The most successful partnerships happen with institutions that want to work with business to get intellectual property out of the walls of the university,” Preston says.

Before moving ahead on a partnership idea, he advises businesses to look into the university’s policy and rules on sharing research with the private sector.

For help finding partnership opportunities, you can contact the Concierge Service, operated by National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. It helps small and medium-sized businesses take advantage of innovation resources and support programs.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada provides funding for businesses to partner with universities and colleges on innovation.

2. Don’t forget colleges

Colleges and polytechnic institutes are often overlooked as potential partners for businesses, but they hold a huge potential, Preston says. “Many colleges are very strong in applied research and have a very open climate to partnerships with businesses.”

Examples of such institutions are Winnipeg’s Red River College, which has won awards for its partnerships with Mitsubishi and Manitoba Hydro, and Toronto’s Sheridan College, whose innovation labs focus on areas such as digital media, high-performance computing and advanced manufacturing technologies.

3. Cooperate with other businesses

Partnerships with other businesses can be complex to negotiate, especially if they are in the same industry, but many opportunities still exist. Even a competitor can be a potential partnership candidate in some cases, Preston says. “You cooperate in some areas and compete in others,” he says.

One opportunity is to partner with a company in order to get into its supply chain. “This gives you credibility and more clients, allowing you to refine and improve your technology,” Preston says. “It’s very difficult for a small company to sell to a Boeing or a Lockheed. It may be easier to partner with a bigger company that already has access to that supply chain and can allow you to become established as a vendor of record.”

Another option is to partner with a reseller that can sell your wares in new markets as part of its suite of products.

4. Use your personal network

To find potential partners, it’s important to network, go to events, build relationships and “get out there,” Preston says. He also suggests creating an advisory board whose members can hook you up with their network of contacts.

5. Sign a partnership agreement

If you find a suitable partner, it’s vital to protect your business interests by signing a legal partnership agreement that spells out issues such as intellectual property ownership and liability. Have the agreement vetted by a good lawyer familiar with intellectual property law.

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