PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Teaching Toolbox
A Little Help From Your Friends

By Douglas M. Green

Building an industrial consortium is a first step toward bigger research goals.

Over the past few decades, federal agencies have devised a variety of programs to fund university engineering research. One result has been the creation of university research centers that specialize in both discovery-driven and innovation-driven research important to the nation's economy.

Almost without exception, these federally funded centers have budgets that are larger than the grants made to individual principal investigators, and granting agencies will normally commit to a longer funding period for a center. Any university can make plans and present a long list of promises, but a track record of technical achievement by an organized group of investigators is much more compelling.

But it is difficult for engineering schools to create a multimillion dollar research center all at once. As you ponder various options, I suggest that forming an industrial research consortium is a good place to start.

Begin by visiting a number of companies to ask which technologies they feel will be most important in the future. In choosing companies, keep in mind that very small firms rarely have sufficient resources to be full partners in an industrial consortium. Then make a short list of technologies mentioned by at least four companies, and work with your department chair or dean to identify the one technology needed by industry for which significant expertise exists within your university. Consortiums usually work best if at least five faculty members specialize in the chosen area.

Why would companies join an industrial consortium? In-house R&D is expensive, and companies normally go through an annual triage process to select only the most critical projects. As a result, companies leave many worthy research projects unfunded, often to the dismay of upper-level managers. A consortium can stretch a company's research budget, especially in the area of pre- competitive projects.

When approaching a company about joining your consortium, you can make a powerful argument if you tell them that for every dollar they invest, someone else will be investing ten more. A consortium also spreads the risk on cutting-edge efforts that might fail, and companies soon discover that a university-based consortium enhances cooperation and collaboration between member companies as they discuss technological problems of mutual interest.

Though industrial members of a consortium can still directly fund individual faculty members in the traditional way, an annual consortium membership fee can fund core research and infrastructure for the center. A word of caution: Keep the membership fee fairly low—no more that $30,000 annually—so that no company or group of companies will feel able to dictate the core research agenda. But remember that both academia and industry will have their own ideas about topics to consider, and to be successful you must meet the needs and expectations of both groups.

For many schools, a consortium is just a stepping stone on the road to a larger research center. Your next step might be a small federal center such as an NSF Industry University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) (see www.eng.nsf.go/eec/i_ucrc. htm). The NSF affiliation can be a strong recruiting tool to attract additional companies.

Whatever your ultimate goal, a consortium can provide financial support for projects and students, and enhance your engineering school's reputation greatly in the eyes of your industrial partners. This high opinion translates into leverage that can help convince even the most skeptical federal program director that you richly deserve a federally funded research center.


    Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
    and dean of engineering at Marquette University.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

DOE Oil Shale Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $20,000-$25,000
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Fosters private sector development of technologies for extracting domestic shale oil
    Contact: Mary Roland, Fossil Energy Program, (301) 903-3514, or see

Millipore Foundation Grants

NSF Innovation and Organizational Change

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $75,000 typically
    Deadline: Feb. 1
    Description: Research on theories, concepts, and methodologies of innovation and organizational change
    Contact: Joseph Hennessey, Division of Design, Manufacture, and Industrial Innovation, (703) 306-1300, e-mail: , or see


Grant profiles reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants Database published by Oryx Press; $1,000 for one-year subscription to Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; .

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