The university is not an institution that could live alone in society, separated from the other actors. Universities generate impact, and at the same time are influenced by the public and private sectors, both at the local, national and international levels. The awareness about this mutual relationship has been growing over the last decades. Nowadays, universities recognise that they have a third mission, other than education and research: “the generation, use, application and exploitation of knowledge with external stakeholders and society in general” (Secundo et al. 2017). The promotion, management and strengthening of cooperation between universities and businesses is a crucial part of this mission.

The Spanning Boundaries project aims to enhance the cooperation between universities and businesses by forming the first ever European cohort of Spanning Boundaries Agents. These are individuals who have a deep understanding of both the academia and industry worlds. The latest desk research conducted as part of our partner project EReady, shows Why and How cooperation occurs, as well as the lack of skills to span the boundaries.

The Why describes what are the motivation drivers that encourage universities and businesses to collaborate, which benefits they earn in the short and long term. Businesses become more competitive, improving their production activities and quality, but also improving their knowledge absorptive capabilities. Universities can apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world cases, improving their skills, and acquiring more resources (funding, but also data and equipment). Furthermore, the collaboration creates a contaminated environment in which new ideas, new knowledge and new research questions arise.

The How describes the forms in which collaboration occurs, exploring channels and mechanisms. University-business cooperation occurs through a continuous interaction in which both actors learn from each other, sharing already existing knowledge and obtaining new one. The interaction can be direct or indirect, formal or informal, institutionally or individually driven. It can occur through bi-directional channels (such as joint R&D projects), commercial channels (such as patents and incubators), service channels (such as consultancy and training staff) or traditional channels (such as conferences and publications). Cooperation occurs in three possible forms: educational collaboration, university entrepreneurship, and research related collaboration. For each of them, universities and businesses need mechanisms that enhance trust and boundary spanning. Otherwise, their differences in purposes and management cannot be bypassed.

Many possible barriers can hinder university-business collaboration, affecting both the Why and the How. A common motivation related barrier is the lack of incentives from the university’s side: collaboration does not help academics in their career advancement. There are many misalignment barriers due to the cognitive and cultural distance between university and business: they have different goals, expectations, time management and priorities. Sometimes, it does not even exist a network between local actors and researchers, or there is a lack of acknowledgement about the value generated by university-business collaboration (contextual barriers). Governance related barriers are important too: they can delay decision making, generate communication problems, or do not support enough the third mission itself. Even when all the above-mentioned barriers are removed, collaboration could be obstructed by the lack of funds, time, or skills (capability related barriers).

To bypass these barriers, universities, businesses and state governments have to actively mitigate the cognitive gap and reduce the social and geographical distance, promoting an entrepreneurial culture to foster engagement, improving the bureaucracy flexibility and providing incentives and resources. Crucial actors that can facilitate this process are Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs), university incubators or accelerators, Collaborative Research Centres and Hybrid Autonomous Organisations.


This article was originally written for the Erasmus+ project EReady.

Authors: Silvia Poli, Elisa Villani, Rosa Grimaldi (ALMA MATER SRUDIORUM Università di Bologna).

Blog editors: Alexandra Zinovyeva (UIIN) and Fleur Schellekens (UIIN), Mario Ceccarelli (UIIN)



[1] Secundo, G., Perez, S.E., Martinaitis, Z., Leitner, K.H., 2017. An Intellectual Capital framework to measure universities’ third mission activities. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 123, 229e239.