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Page updated April 19, 2010
Arranging for Research at UMTRI
How Does a Company Arrange to Have Research Conducted at UMTRI?
Projects may be supported using contracts, gifts, purchase orders, and affiliate programs, with contracts being the most common arrangement for funding research at UMTRI. Potential sponsors should be aware that the process described below varies from project to project.
For contracts, the Driver Interface Group typically uses a collaborative approach when interacting with potential industrial research sponsors to develop research project ideas. Following is a description of how that process typically occurs. Note the time from first contact to a funded project varies quite widely and primarily depends on how quickly the sponsor can make decisions.
Step 1: Pre-proposal Discussions
Most projects with industrial sponsors begin with personal contacts at conferences or with telephone or email inquiries that then lead to a meeting at UMTRI or the sponsor's local office. These often occur as a result of our web site, and often because when one asks around, many will recommend UMTRI. UMTRI is the preferred location for a first meeting, as it allows potential sponsors to see first hand the facilities that might be useful to a project. If several people representing the sponsor want to visit UMTRI, they are encouraged to come together. Typically, the first visit involves a liaison with a small group. The next step is for the sponsor′s management personnel to visit UMTRI. To UMTRI, a follow up meeting within 1 - 2 weeks is a sign of substantial interest. For companies outside the United States, especially those without a large, local organization, responding this quickly is unlikely. For them, the time between the first and second visit can be 3-6 months, and this time period may overlap with the next stage of the process, building a consensus, as described below.
(b) Build a Consensus to Work with UMTRI (1-12 months)
Building a consensus to work with UMTRI happens most quickly if someone inside the sponsoring company acts as the champion for UMTRI and has a specific responsibility to set up a project. Convincing one′s boss, the boss′s boss, and others takes months. Those inexperienced in these activities are often too optimistic about how quickly they can persuade their management to support a research project. During the consensus- building stage, there are usually several phone contacts, email exchanges, and sometimes meetings to further establish what can be done and to build confidence in UMTRI′s capabilities. Some of those interactions, especially email messages, will help define the scope of work being considered, and can serve as the basis for a planning document described in the next section.
Step 2: Request for Quote: Planning Documents (1-4 months)
Once the sponsor has decided to work with UMTRI, the sponsor needs to send UMTRI a written request for quote. An email message is fine. Such written requests require authorization from management in the sponsor's organization. They are a signal to UMTRI that the sponsor is serious about funding research. Sponsors should realize that proposal development is expensive to all parties and should not engage in such unless funding is available or expected. The time from the first meeting until the request for quote is submitted has almost never been less than one month, with three to six months being typical. There have been times when this part of the process takes more than a year, particularly in cases where staff changes at a sponsoring company may delay progress.
The format of the requests vary quite widely, from "please do something on this topic" or "evaluate this device", to specific who, what, when, where, why, how questions. The best requests are those that provide for some flexibility and creativity on UMTRI′s part, as opposed to requests to complete a narrowly defined specific task by a certain date.
UMTRI's initial response to a written request for quote from industrial sponsors is to submit a "planning document". Planning documents do not contain budgets or schedules. Rather, they specify the questions to be examined, how the research will be conducted, and other information, but no literature review. The planning document is based on email exchanges to date, and sometimes text from those messages may be directly incorporated into the planning document. The final version of the planning document (usually 1 to 6 pages in length) is used as the statement of work in the formal contract.
The process of creating a planning document can task substantially longer when confidential information is involved, such as when testing a new product. In some cases, the sponsor just trusts us, and things move ahead normally. When the sponsor requests a nondisclosure agreement, the planning process stops until one developed and agreed upon, which as noted previously, takes 1-2 months if a prior agreement does not exist as described in the next section.
Planning documents are reviewed by sponsors and, based on their feedback, are revised 2 to 4 times before there is agreement on the research. Each review cycle can take 1 to 3 weeks, primarily depending on how quickly the sponsor reviews the ideas in the latest revision of the planning document. This process takes time and costs UMTRI potentially billable hours. To put costs in perspective, a $75,000 project should provide many months of support for the staff collecting the data but may be less than one month of time for the lead scientist. As a consequence, only a few days, of time, at most, can be cost-justified on pre-project discussions and preparations.
Further, to the extent that they can, sponsors need to communicate the level of expected expenditure. Those inexperienced in research vastly underestimate costs. However, if given a general description of a problem, the sponsor thinks they should spend $50,000 and UMTRI needs $300,000, the gap is so large that a funded project is unlikely.
Some sponsors ask about opportunities to co-fund a project with other sponsors. Unless the sponsor are part of a consortium that anticipates funding a specific project, the probability of finding another organization interested in exactly the same issue, with funding at exactly the same time, and willing to split the cost, with essentially no other administrative paperwork, is zero. Because of anti-trust regulations, forming consortia outside of the University can be complicated and expensive.
Finally, several sponsors have asked if their new engineers could work at UMTRI as part of their training (at no cost to U-M). Such placements may need to be coordinated with specific projects supported by the sponsor. Placements have ranged from 6 months to 2-1/2 years. Sending both people and financial support suggests sponsors are interested in long-term relationships, which heightens UMTRI′s interest in them. Engineers and others placed at the University will be expected to comply with university policy. Employers assume full liability for the conduct of their employees, including access to and nondisclosure of proprietary information. Additional details on visiting engineers appear in a subsequent section.
(b) Agree on Nondisclosure Agreement (1-2 months)
In parallel with developing a planning document, discussion of a nondisclosure agreement should occur. The University treats all contractual discussions as confidential and expects similar treatment in return. The University is willing to sign nondisclosure agreements using language provided elsewhere to cover proposals. UMTRI uses the University of Michigan nondisclosure agreement as a starting point. Often industry agreements do not fit the university's situation and contain restrictions the University cannot legally meet. Sponsors should realize that such agreements must be reviewed by the University′s legal staff and approved by higher administrative authorities. Developing a mutually acceptable agreement can take up to one month or more. Sponsors should expect to go back and forth several times before a mutually acceptable agreement is reached. In part this is because new sponsors often have little experience in dealing with universities, and make requests universities cannot fulfill.
(c) Agree on Contract Language (1-2 months)
The third task to occur in parallel with the planning document and statement of work is agreement on contract language. The University will send the sponsor a blank copy of the standard industry research contract, called a Roundtable Research Agreement, which can also be found on the Driver Interface web site. This agreement was collaboratively developed by universities, industry, and the government under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, Government-University-Industry Research Rountable. Versions of the document are used by many research universities in the United States. This document comes from University′s Division of Research Development and Administration, ("the contracts office"), not UMTRI. Reviewing the Agreement in parallel with proposal preparation greatly speeds up the process of getting a contract in place. Furthermore, discussing contract language in parallel with developing the planning document indicates to UMTRI that the sponsor is committed.
Step 3: UMTRI Prepares Contract (0.5-3 months)
Once there is general agreement on the research to be conducted, the sponsor should send the University of Michigan a written request for a quote, if it had not done so earlier. Email is fine. The university's response will be a formal proposal, consisting of two sections: a technical section (a revision of the planning document) and a contract (a completed Roundtable Agreement). The duration of this step depends upon what has been done before. If the nondisclosure agreement and contract language have not been resolved previously, then this step can take three months.
The technical section includes a schedule and an itemized budget. Because the scope of work often expands (sometimes by as much as 50 percent) during discussions, we do not prepare budgets until all technical questions are resolved. The sponsor should generally allow a minimum of two weeks for preparation of a proposal. During that time UMTRI will finalize the budget and schedule, prepare the proposal application form, and have the budget checked. Written approval of the formal proposal is required from the UMTRI Director and may be required from U-M′s Vice-President for Research. Materials are then forwarded to Research Administration, which prepares the contract and mails the package to the sponsor. Because of the large volume of research, U-M has over 40 contract officers, each one of whom is assigned a specific organization or group of organizations (e.g., foreign auto companies, domestic auto companies, other industrial sponsors A-B). At any given time, they are handling multiple proposals. Bids are good for 30 days unless otherwise stated in the submission documents. Additional information on contracts (sample language, reasons for specific constraints, etc.) appears elsewhere.
Step 4: Sponsor Processes Contract
The University has no control over what needs to be done for a sponsor to approve a project. Hopefully, because of all of the preliminary steps (getting permission to send a request for quote, signing a nondisclosure agreement, agreeing on preliminary contract language, etc.), all signers for the project at the sponsor are aware of the research being discussed, and that funding is available. However, because of travel schedules, meetings, and so forth, our experience is that sponsors require anywhere from a week to a month to obtain the necessary signatures.
(b) Government review (0.25 months)
For some countries (e.g., Japan, Korea, China, etc.), having the proposal signed is not the final step in starting a project. These countries require that contracts with U.S. organizations be submitted for approval to their designated government office (often their U.S. consulate). This could delay final approval of a contract for 1 or 2 weeks.
Step 5: Complete Human Subjects Review (1-2 months)
In the United States, to ensure that human research subjects are not exposed to unnecessary risk, by law, the ability to test subjects requires approval by the Human Subjects Committee. That committee meets once per month. UMTRI has a good track record of getting research plans approved, as researchers know what is acceptable to do and what is not. In a few instances, materials have had to be resubmitted for staff review after changes were made.
Because preparation of materials can take several days, the materials may not be prepared until a contract is signed so that preparation time can be charged to the funding project.
Research involving human subjects cannot begin until the Human Subjects Committee has approved the project, even phases that do not involve human subjects. The University accomplishes this not issuing account numbers to charge for unapproved projects.
When U-M′s Research Administration receives a signed contract, they inform UMTRI and the university′s accounting office (financial operations). They assign an account number and perform other tasks to allow a project to begin, a process that takes a day or so. Again, UMTRI cannot do any work until we have an account number to charge.
To maintain a stable workload, key UMTRI staff are usually dividing their time between several projects at any given moment. New research projects need to be coordinated with the demands of projects in progress, which is UMTRI′s first priority. Thus, expecting us to stop activities on existing projects to work on a new project puts us in conflict with other sponsors. To avoid such problems, sponsors are recommended to have a signed contract in place a few months before the research is scheduled to begin.
Project start dates need to be coordinated with academic schedules to balance teaching and research loads of senior staff and to assure student research assistants are available. Staff and student availability varies with the semester (starting January 1, May 1, and September 1). Because students are seeking employment for entire semesters, beginning or ending employment in mid-semester is a problem. Furthermore, students make employment decisions a few months before a semester begins. Without an account number from a contract on which students will work, we cannot hire them.
Some projects involve sponsor-provided equipment, which must be provided on schedule. Because prototypes are being provided, the availability of spares, documentation for diagnosing failures, and so forth need to be considered. In spite of the best intentions, prototypes often do not work as expected, and some time needs to be included in UMTRI project schedules for us to verify proper operation.
Finally, because we are in Michigan, the weather is a factor for on-the-road testing. The amount of on-the-road testing in November, January, and February is much less than at other times of the year because obtaining stable test conditions is so difficult. Thus, when planning a project, the likely dates for on-the-road tests need to be considered.
UMTRI projects typically end 2 months after the work is completed. This is so the University can bill external organizations for goods and services, and allow 30 days for them to pay, assuming they pay on time, and then aggregate all of the financial information. The University′s research administration sometimes prefers end dates farther in the future. With considerable regularity, a sponsor will be happy with UMTRI′s work and come forward with additional or related research. It is much less costly for the sponsor and the University, and takes far less time, to add tasks and funding to an existing contract, and extend the end date, than to create a new contract.
Arranging for a research project can be time-consuming. It is unusual for those discussions to be completed in less than a month, and there have been times when discussions continued on and off over a period of years. UMTRI′s experience is that the time from initial contact to contract averages about 6 months. Activities during this time period include the sponsor reviewing UMTRI′s suggestions, obtaining authorization to proceed, or making arrangements to provide test hardware, vehicles, or test-track time if needed. In general, the process is no different from working with any other contractor. As difficult as this process may seem, UMTRI′s track record is that customers are delighted with the interaction and well worth the effort. It is much easier the second time around when the nondisclosure agreement and contract language are in place.