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Why should an industry scientist hire an academic consultant?

Whether it is interest in a new technology or to identify the next talented recruit, a close relationship between industry and academia will benefit both. That said, few in academia have even a remote understanding of the challenges of the corporate world both large and small. In my personal experience, I transitioned directly from a Yale PHD graduate program to an Oxford postdoctoral fellowship without knowing how my research could be applied to solving real world challenges. That started to change once I started consulting for the ag industry and I began to see the enormous potential of integrating academic research with industry goals. Despite the size of the agriculture, food and related industries sector (estimated at close to $1 trillion) there are relatively few players in this space and with recent mergers the field is continuing to shrink. This provides opportunity for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs if they can get a foot in the door. Unfortunately, the high costs associated with capital expenditures for infrastructure and regulatory barriers keeps many on the sidelines. Although Facebook was started in a dorm room, it is hard to imagine setting up an agbiotech company in a garage.

Here's where academic scientists can have an important impact. The dearth of plant science startups means that there is a vast pool of academic talent that remains untapped. Connecting academic and industry scientists through social media or events is a great first step. Structuring a framework for collaboration is equally important and may be met through consultancy or through joint grant proposals (e.g. NIH/DOE/NSF/USDA STTR or SBIR proposals). Key to this success, however, is the willingness of both parties to meet in the middle. The academic scientist must realize that publication may not be the end game and thus must think carefully of the personnel committed to an industry related project. A post-doc in need of publications may not work as well as a technician who can be partially funded through an industry collaboration. Similarly, the industry scientists must me mindful of the fact that publication is still the currency of academia. Carving out a piece of the collaboration that could be published or that could be used as preliminary data in grant proposals could prove to be the necessary carrot for active engagement of the academic PI or student. Personally, I have found it tremendously rewarding to see our basic science put to work through product development. Getting a high profile publication is good, but developing a higher yielding line that can help feed the planet is awesome.

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