A foot in the door

The art of connecting with universities

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

I spent most of my career within universities. I didn’t have one but both feet inside academia. I started by researching the brain then managed industry collaborations. I founded Afin because I saw the frustrations of scientists from both sides who wanted to collaborate but were continuously faced with hurdles.

Why so many frustrations?

Why so little success?

What makes collaborations happen?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In this blog I will touch key topics related to collaborations with universities:

  • why connect with them,

  • the struggles faced and

  • how to overcome the barriers.

Some of you are already working with universities and you might have varied levels of success. Some of you will never work with universities again. Some of you have never thought of working with universities or aren’t sure how it could benefit you.

Why would you want to connect with universities?

Let’s look at the benefits of working with universities.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

You gain access to

Expertise, blue-sky thinking, new discoveries,

Equipment and facilities,

Data, samples...

It also opens the door to

knowledge exchange:

You can have projects with students,

Students can join your company for internships.

You can be seconded in the university or academics can be seconded in your company.

You can work with them to develop training for your staff.

New sources of R&D funding become available for your company

I listed it last, but it’s usually the first thing that attracts companies to work with universities, and universities to work with industry!

Why is it that SMEs and indeed, larger companies struggle to establish successful collaborations with universities?

Is it a timing issue?

Image by MadMax22 from Pixabay

In a post on LinkedIn, I asked how early is too early to engage with industry. Some said it’s never too early, others said after the IP is protected. It was a tiny poll: lots of people saw the post, but only a handful voted.

My experience tells me that engaging early, developing the concepts together will generate better outcomes.

When you’ve been burned by a university collaboration, you might think you got the timing wrong. However, whenever you engage, getting the right team to support your collaboration is key.

Image by Nile from Pixabay

Is it a people issue then?

One of the pinching points, whether you are in a university or in a company, is getting in the other camp to find the right people.

Even if you have connected with the academic, without the right managers to help, it’s easy to get lost in the academic system and hit the cultural wall. Then everything gets lost in translation.

Before I continue…

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

... in the last year,

  • Have you reached out to universities?

  • Have you reached out to academics you had never met?

The pandemic has changed the way we network.

  • How have you adapted to the virtual meetings?

Humans are social creatures. We will need to be in the same room as others and engage all our senses to create a strong bond. I’ll get back to that point in the last section.

The timing is good, you’ve rallied the right people to your project and you’re sorted the IP, but you’re still struggling. You might have hit the funding wall. I should say the lack of funding wall. You might think that working with universities is a cheap way to get R&D done, it is but, at the same time, it isn’t. Yes, universities will work with companies giving ‘in-kind’ support, but it isn’t always approved, especially in the current economic situation where most universities have budgetary restrictions.

Image by Sabrina Eickhoff from Pixabay

Let me describe a typical situation.

You have passed the first hurdle, you have connected with a research team, you’ve identified who will help and sorted the IP. You have given some of your time to work on the proposal with the university. You will offer some compounds or a prototype to test in their labs and you will spend some time to work with them, to analyse and review findings. It’s your time and your company’s money. It’s your in-kind. Great, you will get the results and move on with the development of your asset. You might even have some pilot data to apply for a grant. Most importantly for the future of your collaboration, you’re building a working relation with the university.

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

However, after all the time preparing and planning the in-kind project, the university might say no. Usually, it isn’t because the research group doesn’t want to do it, but because the university has rejected your proposal. You’re facing the chicken and egg conundrum. You need to build the trust and show a good working relationship to get funding yet, you can’t do research together unless it’s approved. This is so frustrating both for the academics and the company!

Think of it from the university’s perspective. If the research group isn’t paid for that project, regardless how much the compound or prototype cost, the university will have to pay for the time of the professor, the postdoc, the PhD student, the technician, the laboratory time, the overheads, etc.

So you see, in kind may be, in principle, reciprocal, but this means you are asking the university to kind of pay part of your