A central motive of the Engineering Research Centers program is to form partnerships between academia and industry in systems-oriented research areas that are critical to the Nation's economic strength. Each ERC collaborates with industry from the early stages of its vision creation and strategic planning, and collaboration extends to technology development and pre-commercial application. By thus expanding and accelerating technology translation and eventual commercial use, this approach bridges the traditional technology transfer gap between the single university investigator and industrial adopters of academic research results. (See “Valley of Death”.)
The ERCs are distinctive among NSF research centers in this embracing of industry throughout the entire cycle of technology creation, development, and implementation. Each ERC team envisages and plans technology development with its industrial partners from the outset. Each center's strategic plan, developed in consultation with industrial members, helps identify areas for joint projects and experimental testbeds for validating research results in practical applications. NSF holds ERCs responsible for tracking their research results through commercial implementation. The report “ERC Innovations” describes many of the successful commercialized products and processes that have emerged out of ERC research.
ERCs must build large research programs with considerable financial support from industry. While some support may be in the form of contractual agreements with deliverables, in many centers an equivalent or greater sum consists of unrestricted industrial grants to the center. Special emphasis is often placed on attracting small and medium-sized companies to ERCs because of their more rapid acceptance of new technologies and rapid growth potential, and on stimulating the formation of startups and spinoffs.