How Huawei Collaborates with Universities

ByWilliam Xu

December 17, 2019

William Xu

When taking questions from reporters, I am often asked about Huawei’s collaboration with universities. These questions come quite often and I sense concern over Huawei’s intentions, particularly when the reporters are from Western countries. In this post, I would like to explain how everyone – Huawei, the universities, and the world at large – benefits when our company cooperates with scientists in academia.

A Reliable Partner

With over US$15 billion invested in 2018, Huawei is among the world’s largest R&D spenders. Like Amazon, Samsung, or Intel, part of our budget goes to partnerships with universities. This year, we will provide about US$300 million to support leading universities and next year, probably more.

 To a significant extent, we do not claim exclusive ownership of the results of the research that we fund. In other words, if tangible outcomes – e.g., a discovery or a technological breakthrough – emerge from the research that the universities conduct, we seek no returns in a major proportion of cases. We do get useful intellectual property out of some partnerships, but when this happens, the terms are clearly established. For instance, in all the collaborations between Huawei and European research institutes since 2018, only a small portion of resulting IP rights (IPRs) were exclusively granted to Huawei, while most resulting IPRs were exclusively granted to our partners or granted to both parties.

Our investments are largely motivated by self-interest. The industry in which we compete, information and communications technology (ICT), is running into a stagnation stage. Shannon’s theorem[1], one of the scientific cornerstones of the industry, was formulated 70 years ago and is reaching its theoretical limits. Similarly, Moore’s Law[2] is becoming harder and harder to carry out as the wiring in microchips is now measured in single-digit nanometers, and it keeps getting narrower.

As these two examples show, without new theories and technological breakthroughs, further ICT development will be limited. Huawei’s interest in funding academic research is first and foremost a way to advance basic scientific knowledge. This kind of basic scientific research is what lights the way forward for Huawei, the industry, and the world at large. Without advances in basic research, our business will reach a standstill.

Partnerships with Universities

Before we arrived on the scene, universities had a long experience of collaborating with industry. Huawei is one of countless companies engaged in partnerships with universities worldwide. We follow well-established and extremely common practices whenever we initiate collaborations with universities. Even the institutions – primarily US ones – that suspended their relationship with our company are well aware of this; their decision to stop working with us was not the result of Huawei doing anything improper.

As is the case for other companies, our relationships with universities are not one-way partnerships where we simply harvest new knowledge generated by universities. A research collaboration is a two-way process where both parties exchange ideas and mutually benefit. Businesses can provide universities with inputs about pressing business challenges, technical challenges, and real-world scenarios. Academics are often eager for data and perspectives coming from outside the ivory tower.

It generally takes a long time, sometimes even decades, to commercialize the results of universities’ theoretical research and innovation. Carbon nanotubes, for example, were first conceptualized in the 1950s. Despite unique properties like high electrical conductivity, extreme tensile strength, and astonishingly light weight, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the first products making use of carbon nanotubes appeared. The role of businesses is to help universities speed up this commercialization process.

When intellectual property – such as a patent – is generated as a result of a partnership, it is often when the research collaboration has a narrower, more defined focus. Before these types of project begin, we agree with our partners on how any resulting IPRs be shared. Once again, this is extremely standard in industry-academia partnerships.

Our UK Partnerships

We work with universities around the world, but I will highlight a few of the programs we have in the UK, a country where, in the past, reporters have questioned Huawei’s partnerships with academics. In November 2017, we announced a partnership with British Telecom (BT) and the University of Cambridge. As part of this partnership, Huawei invests up to £5 million every year, or a total of £25 million over five years. This money goes to support research into future communications network technology. The University of Cambridge has strong capabilities in research and innovation, and BT has real-world requirements and scenarios for future network development.

Another good example is the collaboration on 5G between Huawei and the University of Surrey. This partnership has produced excellent results for both Huawei and Surrey, which is now at the forefront of 5G research in academia. With Surrey, we have opened the 5G Innovation Centre, which Huawei initially funded with £5 million. This centre has become a catalyst for collaborative 5G research, attracting over 20 partners that have together contributed £70 million.

One common misapprehension is that Huawei will somehow “monopolize” the new knowledge its partnerships create by hiring key doctoral students and postdocs. This is a false impression for several reasons. First, although we always look for the best talent and the universities we partner with tend to be the best schools, our hiring procedures follow certain procedures that include a code of ethics. Recruiting the key staff of our partners would be improper. Secondly, we can hire these key researchers only if they want to work for Huawei; if they decide to work for a competitor or stay in academia, then that is a valid choice. Finally, a researcher who does good work in an academic setting may be of better use to Huawei by remaining in that setting, not in a Huawei corporate lab where we tend to focus on product development. This said, we routinely work with universities on basic science that may result in real-world applications in the future.

Currently, we are looking for partners to jointly explore optical networks with us. This is an embryonic technology, perhaps just a concept at this stage, but one that could offer super-high bandwidth while using much less electricity.

Read more: ON2.0: The Journey and Features of Optical Intelligence

Investigating the optical domain could help us gain a better understanding of future network infrastructures. But we may need to invest in this area for 10 or 20 years before we see any results.

Innovation 2.0 at Huawei

Compared to the past, when we just tried to introduce new products as quickly as possible, our main R&D focus at Huawei now is clearly long-term. We have adopted a new R&D strategy, Innovation 2.0. Whereas in the past, Huawei found success in launching products that were basically improvements of existing technologies, we are now becoming a truly innovative firm that relies on significant scientific breakthroughs to advance.

Read more: Innovation 2.0: From Innovation to Invention

Although our ultimate focus remains commercial, our interest in basic sciences in many areas now converges with universities’ efforts to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. In the coming years, it is only natural that collaboration between Huawei and universities will become increasingly routine. Whenever, we engage in collaboration with academia, it will be on the basis of a goal of shared success. If you are part of a world-leading science organization, I sincerely hope you will want to work with us to advance the frontiers of knowledge.

Click the link to follow William Xu on Linked In.

[1] Shannon’s theorem, presented in 1948, expresses the maximum rate at which information can be transmitted over a communications channel of a specified bandwidth in the presence of noise.

[2] Not to be confused with a natural law, Moore’s Law is an observation first phrased by Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that the density of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. 

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William Xu

Director of the Board, President of the Institute of Strategic Research, Huawei

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