Crystal Leach joined UGA in February 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.
“Increasing the level of industry-funded research at UGA is a high priority for OVPR,” said Vice President for Research David Lee. “But it needs a point person who gets up every day 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. She can talk the talk and walk the walk,” he also said. “This partnership between OVPR and the College of Engineering makes sense because, we while we expect considerable activity involving engineering faculty, we want Crystal to be available to help faculty in other units who already conduct, or wish to conduct, industry-sponsored research.”
Columns: University-industry collaborations are on the rise. What’s the value 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.
Columns: 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 it has 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, administrators 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.
Columns: 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 dialogue so we can begin crafting the right strategy for their specific research efforts. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columns: 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 to 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.
Columns: 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.