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Entrepreneurial Mindset: The Secret Ingredient to Successful Industry-University Partnerships

Alexandra Zinovyeva

University faculty members can no longer rely solely on government funding to support their research pursuits. They must seek out industry partnerships for critical resources to drive diverse, cutting-edge research initiatives.

In a recent VentureWell article, 4 Ways Faculty Can Make and Keep Strong Industry Partnerships, Elizabeth Adams, assistant vice president for research administration at the University of Virginia, noted that faculty members need to “take hold of their own research program like a CEO.”

I couldn’t agree more.

To establish and maintain solid industry partnerships, research faculty need to think and act like entrepreneurs: actively seeking out new customers (industry partners), developing a sustainable business model (partnership), maximizing tight budgets, and pitching value and ideas to potential partners.

During a panel about industry-university partnerships, I presented at the VentureWell conference, OPEN 2018, a majority of faculty attendees asked how they can effectively engage with industry. My response: start by applying an entrepreneurial mindset to all stages of the industry-university partnership. Below are four components of an entrepreneurial mindset that can help university research faculty develop partnerships with industry.

Develop Relationships

Nurturing potential industry partners for the long haul requires fostering authentic connections from the start. To accomplish this, it’s important for faculty to avoid transactional relationship tactics – especially in the early stages of the relationship. Instead, they need to consider building relationship management, interpersonal communications, and customer service skills. Once the relationship is established, meeting in person as much as possible will help maintain the connection. That should include visiting the industry partner’s headquarters to show commitment. There are many books that illustrate ways to build strong business relationships such as To Sell is Human by author and OPEN 2017 keynote speaker, Daniel Pink.

Get Out of the Lab  

Connecting with potential industry partners doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s important for faculty to actively and strategically engage with industry to understand what the university can bring to the potential partnership. Attending industry-related trade shows or conferences is a good place to start. It allows faculty to identify potential university champions at companies and find out critical information such as: What’s their role and function? Are they already involved with industry-university partnerships? What are their partnership needs? These events also allow faculty to take the industry’s temperature. For instance, what are the common or major industry challenges? What are some research gaps and needs?

Of course, if time and budget constraints prohibit attending trade shows and conferences, faculty can easily find ways to connect with champions via LinkedIn or meet with ones from local companies. It can be as simple as meeting for lunch or coffee, or inviting the champion to speak with students about industry trends in the classroom.

Listen, Ask Questions, Listen Some More

While it’s easy to get excited about the nuances of an academic research project, it’s important for faculty to refrain from dominating the conversation. Instead, it’s important that they listen carefully to the industry partner to uncover the company’s needs and pain points. Faculty can also probe deeper by asking “why?” whenever possible. That will help faculty understand if and how the university’s research initiatives can solve the potential partner’s problem. A book like Talking to Humans is a good source for research faculty to learn listening and interviewing techniques.

Pitch Partnership Benefits

As the relationship between faculty and industry partner progresses, there will come a point where the faculty member must illustrate the value of the relationship. Dr. David Grewell, Director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2), is very successful at collaborating with industry. He is an active part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Program (IUCRC). Much of Dr. Grewell’s success centers on his ability to illustrate how industry can benefit from a collaboration with CB2. For instance, he focuses on how CB2 industry partners have been able to leverage their funds by a 1:35 ratio. He also shares examples of technologies that have gone to market as a result of the partnership. His pitch also includes names of students employed by industry partners, which is further testimony to the value industry sees in the partnership.

As the engagement between academic research faculty and industry becomes a common pathway for research and commercialization, it’s critical for faculty to consider the ingredients that can lead to productive and long-term relationships. Experience shows that one of the most important strategies for faculty to forge successful partnerships is developing an entrepreneurial mindset. Doing so can transform an academic research faculty into constant problem/solution seekers, active network builders, and effective value creators.

Dorn Carranza is Director of Innovation & Industrial Partnerships at VentureWell. He is responsible for VentureWell programs and industry-university-government collaboration models that drive innovation, including the collaboration with the NSF IUCRC program. Carranza’s expertise combines a unique cross-disciplinary background and specialties including innovation processes, policy and programs management. His educational background includes a BS in Pharmaceutical Sciences, a PhD in Chemistry, and an Executive MBA with focus on Strategy and Leadership.

The article is originally published in the LinkedIn profile of the author.

Image: Research Poster Session at VentureWell conference, OPEN 2018

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