When Google acquired Motorola Mobility in 2011, big changes were in store for the ailing cell phone maker. Thousands lost their jobs as part of the restructuring. Meanwhile, Google brought in top officials from DARPA to reenergize Motorola’s moribund mobile technology.
Regina Dugan who headed the agency and her lieutenant Kaigham Gabriel set about injecting DARPA's fleet-footed technology development approach into Motorola's more deliberate culture.
Motorola's Advanced Technology and Projects Group, which Dugan now leads, does not even call itself a research organization. Instead, like DARPA, it has started to structure projects to demonstrate avant-garde technologies that are just beginning to make the transition from laboratories pursuing basic science. Projects will rope in investigators from other companies and universities, even more than Motorola researchers, to pursue prototypes for communications and information technologies that incorporate advances beyond simply making a cell phone a few millimeters thinner.
Toward that goal, the company is announcing on June 19th a collaboration with eight of the top public and private research universities. Motorola negotiated a common agreement for conducting joint research that would allow the company to initiate a project rapidly with one or more universities.
A so-called master agreement between a single university and a company that provides boilerplate provisions for multiple research projects at a single school is routine. What distinguishes the Motorola effort is that it is a standard agreement that lays the groundwork for collaborative projects with multiple schools.
It can take up to a year to negotiate a corporate-academic agreement with a single university, which would hamper the urgency that the advanced technology group wants to bring to these efforts. "A technical project leader can reach out to researchers," Gabriel says. "They can identify what the scope of work is, what's the duration, what's the expense. We’re assuming that it takes less than 30 days and then we're off and running, no additional work is required"
Motorola signed with California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Tech University. The universities do not receive any funding up front, only when a project is initiated.
Gabriel gave an example from an ongoing effort of the type of project that might be contemplated under the new agreement. Motorola is investigating whether the emerging technology of 3D printing might be used by consumers to customize their cell phones. "To what extent can I, at the last minute, make the back of the phone or the front or have certain functional as well as aesthetic elements that are part of the phone?" he asks. Current 3D finished parts do not meet commercial standards for product finish or durability. Gabriel speculated that a small company on the East Coast might have created an innovative ink and a university in the Midwest might have devised a novel printable structural material. "As part of a project we would go out to a company and a university and pull them in to to improve 3D printing," Gabriel says.
It remains to be seen whether there is blowback as to whether Motorola/Google is trying to capture the best and brightest among IT researchers for its internal needs. But Fred Farina director of Caltech's offfice of technology transfer did not seem worried. "We’re open to Intel doing the same thing and IBM doing the same thing. Just because they [Motorola] came and agreed on something and they were the first company to do this on the IT side, I would say to other companies 'bring it on' and we will work with you as well."
Others praised the flexibility that Motorola brought to the process after having dealt with companies that wished to dictate stringent contractual terms that could, say, hinder a researcher's ability to publish in academic journals. "Everybody's goals were aligned, says Sam Liss, Harvard's director of business development.
"I really enjoyed this negotiation because of its openness, says Lesley Millar, director of the office of technology management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It was very candid, on the table, let's get out there and address the issues one by one,"
The agreement specifies that Google has the option to negotiate exclusive licensing of a technology for particular uses that it has funded the university to develop. It does not impede researchers from publishing, but lets Motorola review the final manuscript to ensure that it contains no confidential information.
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