Balancing academia and business

Jørgen Aune



Helge Helguson Neumann


At TIK, the link between academia and business is important and works both ways. For the last seven years, Telenor and TIK have been partnering up to understand innovation. Teknovatøren had a chat with some of the actors from both sides to discuss cooperation between academia and firms.

Although there have been close links between universities and private sector for a long time, their explicit differences make it appear as though they exist on different planets. This impression might be tied to the perception that academics are working to discover new knowledge, while private companies are concerned with growth and profits. Different motivation leads to different working methods and routines. However, in today’s society, with digitalization, globalization and rapid innovation, academia and the business sector are partnering up for mutual benefits. One such collaboration is the 7-year long partnership between the telecom company Telenor and the research centre TIK.

Historically, Telenor has been closely connected to science. Before Televerket became Telenor, and before the modern Research Council of Norway was established in 1993, Televerket operated as the “research council” for the telecom industry. This tight connection between Telenor, and the research sector has been maintained in the last decades. “There is a tradition in Telenor to be a progressive company. To be innovative and reach new markets, you need to be able to absorb external knowledge. Thus, collaboration between universities and firms can be decisive for innovation” says Dagfinn Myhre, head of communications and external relations at Telenor Research.

Magnus Gulbrandsen, professor and head of the innovation group at TIK, has done research on collaboration between actors in systems of innovation. He argues that collaboration between universities and firms can be important within an innovation system, but it’s effectiveness depends on several factors. A key for a successful partnership is to recognize mutual benefits, differences, and potential tensions. “Trust is also important; it takes time to build and requires patience”. Gulbrandsen also highlights the importance of informal connections between the industry and academia. “There needs to be a balance, academia needs to prepare the students for what is expected to solve societal problems. At the same time, academia represents a neutral environment where it is possible to be creative and think long-term to a greater extent than in the private sector”.

This same understanding of balance is also present at Telenor, where there are discussions about the bilingual scientist: one that knows the language of both academia and business. Jarle Hildrum, head of service innovation and former researcher at TIK, has experience from both worlds. He also reflects on the importance of having an innovation-environment where you are able to see longterm. “There are many examples, also at Telenor, where new ideas and products have failed. But we still need to explore those ideas to keep innovating and growing”. Myhre adds that this idea of long-term exploring is important in academia as well. “Universities needs to build a good foundation. We need employees who have a generic competence. I don’t think business, or the academic communities prosper from too applied and short-term science”.

The success of Telenor the last decade has been a result of an innovative culture in the company. Myhre addresses the importance of individuals with an innovative mindset. “There has been an entrepreneurial culture with strong industry-oriented individuals who succeeded with Telenor’s international expansion. They know technology, but they also know markets and business. These individuals have been the engine of our growth.” This kind of culture is a significant ingredient in the creation of growth, but this culture also needs input. “We want to build up scientific communities we can work with, because we sometimes need to think differently and get new perspectives. For example, we can talk to TIK if we want to discuss and learn more about the understanding and measurement of innovation.” The collaboration between firms and academia creates a bond where the firm gets essential inputs, while the science institution gets valuable insight in how the firm works. Over time, this mutual understanding can give an even better cooperation as the two parts benefits from each other.

Individuals are important for the cooperation between academia and firms. Some scientific institutions only want to get the contract signed and to deliver a report in the mailbox at the end of the contract, while others are very interested in the firm and eager to discuss and have meetings. What kind of relationship there will be between academia and the firm often depends on individuals. “Personal relationships are essential for how fruitful the collaboration will be. The collaboration works best when individuals in academia really care about our challenges.” Myhre says. Maybe that is why the collaboration between Telenor and TIK has been so successful for the last seven years.