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University-Foundation Relations: Creating More Effective Partnerships


The relationship between nonprofit patient foundations and academic institutions has evolved in significant ways in recent years. While this evolution has the potential to create more productive partnerships, it has also created new challenges. Shifting priorities and a move toward more outcomes-driven philanthropy have prompted a reexamination of the traditional partnership model. Over the past year, FasterCures has been working with a variety of stakeholders to identify and implement strategies for strengthening these relationships. View this Webinar, which took place Dec. 2, 2015, to hear from leaders in the field about the concrete steps foundations and universities can take to foster more efficient, fruitful collaborations, and learn how to craft agreements that best serve the needs and interests of all parties.


This free Webinar is part of FasterCures' Webinar series designed to spotlight innovative approaches to disease research.



Federal research spending is on the decline. At the same time, philanthropists are increasingly taking an  outcomes-driven approach to funding research. With these changes, “we’ve seen a shift in how foundations interact with universities to fund research,” noted Maureen Japha, FasterCures’ associate director for regulatory policy, at the beginning of FasterCures’ Dec. 2 Webinar. Over the past year, FasterCures has been working with a variety of stakeholders to identify and implement strategies for strengthening these relationships. During the hour-long Webinar discussion, hundreds of listeners from nonprofit foundations, academia, and industry tuned in to learn about the evolving relationship between patient foundations and academia and identify some practical steps that can be taken to improve those partnerships. 

Speakers Amy Laster of Foundation Fighting Blindness, Felice Lu of the University of California Office of the President, and Ann Bonham of the Association of American Medical Colleges each provided a unique perspective of what’s working and what can be done to build stronger, more effective relationships. 
A funder’s perspective
Echoing Japha’s opening remarks, Laster pointed out that foundations are focused on funding research that will lead to commercialization and become available for public benefit. She noted that institutions are similarly committed to developing inventions that can be licensed for further translation and development. Laster pointed out that foundations are obligated to their stakeholders to fight for every invention that has promise. Unfortunately, this push to be involved may impact institution’s freedom and ability to license inventions. 
Laster emphasized the importance of enhanced communication among stakeholders  throughout the research process, even before any grant dollars are exchanged. She also highlighted some practical steps that funders and institutions could take to build stronger partnerships. These include: 

  • Exchange contact information at the time a grant is awarded. By knowing exactly who to contact and what number to call, participants on both sides will be better equipped to address financial issues and questions related to post-award administration. In addition, by establishing a relationship early on, the foundation and university will be better positioned to partner on identifying licensees in the event an invention is disclosed.
  • Communicate goals and priorities up front. Laster noted that it’s important to ensure that the institution understands the foundation’s mission and what its priorities are, to protect against misunderstandings down the road.
  • Annually report general information on licensing progress to funders. This becomes easier if the lines of communication are open from the beginning, but is a straightforward way to facilitate partnership and collaboration as efforts to license move forward.
  • Agree to require diligence provisions in license agreements that the institution will monitor and enforce. Institutions are committed to seeing technology move forward, and effective diligence provisions can help achieve this.

University technology transfer: Alignment of mission
Lu opened her presentation by describing three overlapping elements of the university mission: research, education, and public service. She noted that “academic knowledge transfer” is one of the main ways universities achieve their mission, by transferring inventions generated through university research into a public benefit. Technology transfer offices are the vehicle through which this academic knowledge transfer is accomplished. 

Lu also noted that foundations have similar objectives to those established through policy initiatives such as the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and the NIH Research Tools Sharing Policy released in 1999. Namely, foundations and these initiatives are directed at:

  • providing public benefit,
  • ensuring diligent development, and 
  • facilitating sharing of research tools.

Lu pointed out that while universities are still adapting to differences in the level of involvement and communication foundations prefer as compared with government funders, many are recognizing how valuable these partnerships can be. To demonstrate this, Lu cited a few examples of successful partnerships, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Coulter Foundation, and California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. 

Partnerships for purpose
Bonham closed out the presentation portion of the Webinar by highlighting the need to move from transactional to transformational partnerships. She noted that to have effective partnerships, it’s important to facilitate ongoing collaboration while also ensuring that the right people are at the table at the right times. She also called on stakeholders to find ways to move the discussion from a focus on direct, indirect, and overhead costs to one that focuses on the “real costs to ensure success.” Bonham concluded by emphasizing the need to work together to address the grand challenges that face all stakeholders. 

Participants then had a chance to address several of the questions that came in from listeners in advance of and during the Webinar, ranging from how small, relatively new nonprofits could best initiate discussions with academic institutions to how organizations can maintain effective relationships outside of grant agreements. In closing, Japha asked each panelist to offer one concrete thing stakeholders could do to help advance these partnerships  in a positive direction. 
Bonham suggested contacting the foundation early on to ensure you have a complete understanding of the mission and to “understand they are engaged partners and not just partners from afar.” Lu agreed with this sentiment and noted that in addition to communicating the goals of your organization or institution, it’s just as important to listen, and “be open to what the other party has to say.” Finally, Laster pointed out that foundations have a commitment to their boards and that it is important for foundations to educate their boards, particularly with respect to communications around institutions, so that more informed decisions can be made when outlining the guiding principles of an organization. 
FasterCures recognizes that enhanced communication and a focus on long-lasting partnerships rather than a one-time transaction can move these relationships forward, and we will continue to work to help stakeholders do this more effectively. 

Related resources:   



Ann Bonham,
Chief Scientific Officer, Association of American Medical Colleges


Amy Laster,
Director, Grants and Award Programs, Foundation Fighting Blindness


Felice Lu,
Research Policy Manager, University of California Office of the President



Maureen Japha,
Associate Director, Regulatory Policy, FasterCures, and Legal Counsel, Milken Institute