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Breaking Down the Barriers between Academia and Industry: Dr. Maarit Haataja

Elena Galán-Muros

At UIIN, our work is underpinned by research. With 15 large-scale research initiatives currently running across various topics in the field of university-industry collaboration, we are excited to share our insights with you in our research projects blog series. Today, we are pleased to give more insight into the Spanning Boundaries Project, an Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance project, aimed at breaking down the barriers between academia and industry.

To increase employment, productivity and social cohesion, the European Union has taken the path to creating a more connected relationship between society, governments, businesses, and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). HEIs, as key regional actors, possess the capacities to support businesses with knowledge and human resources, create new businesses via start-ups and spin-offs, and foster innovation via industry R&D cooperation. However, despite the strong policy support, cooperation amongst these stakeholders remains limited.

To counter this phenomenon, UIIN has launched the Spanning Boundaries project with the aim of nurturing a cohort of Spanning Boundaries Agents who have a deep understanding of both academia and the business worlds and can enable more thriving cooperation. Within the project, UIIN is profiling several agents, with the goal of sharing their path to success, challenges, and success factors. Amongst these, UIIN interviewed Dr. Maarit Haataja, Deputy for Chief Development Officer at the University of Helsinki.

About Maarit Haataja
Maarit has a PhD in Biology and has worked in academia for her entire career; first as a researcher, then going on to work in administration. Over the past ten years, she has been working at the interface between academia and industry. Maarit emphasises the importance of learning-by-doing and the use of mentors in helping her to understand the business perspective and needs as a Spanning Boundaries agent. She has participated in several training programmes around the themes of university-business cooperation (UBC), IPR, funding and project management, but nonetheless says the former has been most important for her career.

”A Spanning Boundaries Agent leading the change needs to be able to understand the big picture, pain points and weaknesses. She needs process-understanding and negotiation skills as well as strategic understanding”

Spanning Boundaries activities
An exciting project Maarit is currently involved in, is the Business Collaboration Accelerator for Faculties at the University of Helsinki. This new service, offered by the Research Services and Business Collaboration teams of the University, is designed to help individual faculties’ deans and their leadership to strategically design, lead, monitor and implement UBC activities and partnerships with ecosystem and industry partners. The contents of the service are being built according to the individual needs of each faculty, and hence tailored to the end-users’ needs. The Research Services team offers tools, training, and additional resources to supplement faculty-level capacity. The first large scale pilot of the Business Collaboration Accelerator is now taking place at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry under the theme of Sustainable Food.

Drivers & barriers
When asked about the drivers for boundary spanning activities, Maarit beliefs it to be crucial to have a shared vision amongst stakeholders; to ensure top-leadership commitment; to identify Spanning Boundaries champions within faculty; and to pool in scattered resources.

Maarit has however also experienced several barriers to her work, including a lack of UBC culture and incentives; the university leaders’ lack of innovation and business creation skills; a lack of personnel support resources (i.e. 4500 researchers vs. team of few dozen experts in support staff); overall co-ordination and financial framework; and a lack of industry awareness about what the University of Helsinki can offer businesses.

To overcome these barriers, Maarit believes that it is important to use thematic mission/impact-driven thinking that creates a common direction, as well as giving ownership and nurturing it at the faculty-level.

Main motivation
Maarit is motivated to promote university-business cooperation for the benefit of society, by ensuring that society and businesses can fully exploit the knowledge that universities generate. She feels it is the duty of universities to ensure that knowledge is transferred to decision-makers, business, and industry to be utilised in practice. Her objective at the University of Helsinki is therefore to ensure that the cultural mindset of researchers and staff members changes and that the capacity for collaboration and partnerships increases. Instead of “ad hoc” cooperation that currently characterises UBC at the University of Helsinki, she wants to build strategic partnerships that include shared facilities, mobility, student cooperation as well as joint-projects, regional development, and start-up creation.

Boundary spanning capabilities
Anyone in university leadership interested in increasing boundary spanning capabilities needs knowledge of organisational change management and cultural change. Maarit says she has ‘typical’ UBC skills, such as an understanding of IPR – Business development; the ability to attract funding; commercialisation skills; as well as an understanding of industry needs and of the research which is required from a Spanning Boundaries agent. Yet, Maarit underlines that cultural and change-making skills are of utmost importance for leading UBC on a strategic-level.

A Spanning Boundaries Agent leading the change needs to be able to understand the big picture, pain points and weaknesses. She needs process-understanding and negotiation skills as well as strategic understanding.

Authored by Catherine Hayward and Mario Ceccarelli, Junior Project Officers at UIIN
Cover image by Linda Tammisto. Maarit’s picture retrieved from Maarit Haataja’s LinkedIn profile.

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