Research + real world: finding partners through discovery and innovation

Crystal Leach

Crystal Leach

Industry increasingly is turning to universities to know what’s going on at the cutting edge of research, and universities, in turn, are looking to industry to take its innovations to market and deliver benefits to society.

“Increasing collaborations with industry is a high priority for UGA,” said UGA Vice President for Research David Lee. “It’s a way to connect our research to the real world, part of our land grant mission in the 21st century.

“It’s also an important component of diversifying our portfolio of external funding,” he continued, “and it’s good for the students who are involved in these projects, since many of them go on to work for the industry sponsors.

“The question is, how do we do it?” he said, pausing. “It takes a multi-pronged approach.”

A new initiative + the right hire

A significant step was taken this February, when Crystal Leach joined UGA as the founding director of Discovery and Innovation Partnerships, a new initiative jointly supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the College of Engineering. The Ohio native earned her master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Akron and her doctorate in textiles and polymer science at Clemson University. For the majority of her career, she worked at Kimberly-Clark, a Fortune 500 global health and hygiene company, in positions ranging from materials research to leading a global innovation and product development team.

“Because industry often moves faster than academia, we need to be efficient and responsive when negotiating terms,” Lee said. “We need to be as flexible as possible with our intellectual property policies and terms. And we need a point person who gets up every morning thinking about how to connect industry with relevant UGA researchers.”

“We are excited to now have Crystal Leach in this role. Her extensive background in industry research means that she’ll have instant credibility with her peers in industry as well as with our faculty.”

UGA + industry

In reflecting on the opportunities and advantages at UGA, Leach answered a few questions about why industry collaborations are a priority for the university.

Q: What’s the value of industry collaborations to UGA? To industry? 

Leach: Industry collaborations offer faculty the opportunity to extend the impact of their research through an additional external funding stream. Through these partnerships, UGA researchers can directly contribute to the economic growth of our community, which is central to our mission as a land-grant institution.

For industry, the value of these partnerships extends beyond the specific outcomes of the research project: They gain access to technical capabilities they don’t have in-house and expand their resources without adding infrastructure. Identifying and partnering with faculty members who are on the leading edge of science is key for industries that want to be first to market with new technologies. Additionally, our industry partners tell us they highly value the ability to engage with students so that they have access to the pipeline of talented graduates.

Q: What kinds of UGA collaborations exist already?  

Leach: I’m lucky to have a great foundation to build from in this new role. UGA has a strong history of collaborating with industries across the biological and agricultural sciences, ranging from fundamental exploration to applied research resulting in new products and services. Although relatively new, the College of Engineering is quickly building a portfolio of industrial partners across its research specialties, and they have the potential to greatly accelerate this within the next few years. The basic building blocks are in place to significantly expand UGA’s presence in this area: faculty with strong research portfolios, administration who are engaged and supportive and systems that enable collaboration. I’m excited to tap into all of this potential to build new industrial collaborations and strengthen our current partnerships.

Q: How can faculty start collaborations with industry? 

Leach: Let’s talk! The first step is working together to outline the type of industry collaboration that best fits their research efforts and area of expertise. I’m happy to help faculty research target companies or sectors that would be a fit for their work. I would encourage them to check out the resources available on the OVPR website and talk with colleagues who are currently involved in industry-funded research projects. The most important thing is that we start the dialog so we can begin crafting the right strategy for their specific research efforts.

Q: What kinds of assistance can you offer?

Leach: I’m so impressed with the faculty here at UGA and the research I see taking place across multiple disciplines. My role is like a matchmaker: helping help faculty identify and engage industry partners, leveraging my own industry experience to assist them in understanding corporate culture, decision-making processes and research models.

Q: What will success look like? 

Leach: Of course we want to increase UGA’s overall level of industry funding, especially for growing engineering programs, but there are additional factors that I will use as a measure of success. I’m especially interested in increasing our number of strategic collaborations—those long-term industry partners who engage with us across multiple fronts—research, recruitment and philanthropy. Also, I think there’s great potential for building research collaborations that span departmental and college boundaries, that is, bringing together the breadth of UGA capabilities to provide a complete solution for the challenges industry partners bring forward.

Connect with Crystal Leach at

WRITER: Terry Hastings, Office of the Vice President for Research

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