The art of connecting with universities
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?
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.
You gain access to
Expertise, blue-sky thinking, new discoveries,
Equipment and facilities,
It also opens the door to
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?
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.
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…
... 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.
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.
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 R&D. What you should keep in mind is that the research group’s funding comes from government and grants, it’s public money. That’s the main reason the university will stop projects that would be too expensive for them.
How can you overcome these barriers?
1. Reach out
I'm coming back to the box above. Our brains are wired to interact in 3D and engage all our senses. During the pandemic, we had to adapt to a flat communication that uses only two senses. We managed, we worked in teams and collaborated with people we already knew, we might have made new virtual contacts and started conversations. However, how many of them have created lasting relationship and evolved into collaborations? As the restrictions are lifted, it’s a good time to invest in those people you have met online. In the past, reaching out by email was often the first attempt; now that we are used to them, virtual meetings might become the new way to establish contacts.
If you don’t have contacts with universities or want to create new ones, there are a couple of ways to meet academic researchers:
Go where they dwell (online or in person), find the scientific meetings they will attend, which social media they use. Many have profiles on LinkedIn. You can register on new networks such as Smart Tribe or the traditional Research Gate.
Academics don’t usually go to industry conferences. A big hint, if academics are at one of the trade events, try to meet with them, even if you don’t need to work with them yet. What is 5–10 minutes of your time to find out what they’re passionate about? You might find common interests, or they might know a colleague that could help you.
Contact the university but be aware that the managers won’t be working for you. However, they will send a call-out for your idea and nudge a few academics to see if they’re interested in your project. They won’t chase it unless you do. You will have to be persistent and hope that one academic will be interested in your idea.
Understand their aspirations.
Academics work for their passion and the deep understanding of their field; they’re working at, not for the university. They develop their ideas, to the extreme. They’re rewarded for the quality and quantity of their peer-reviewed publications as well as for the research grants they get. Some are attracted by entrepreneurship and working with industry and they’re usually particularly good at it.
Know their needs.
How far from their personal research is your project going to take them?
What are they looking for in the collaboration?
You should explain what’s in it for you but, most importantly,
understand what’s in it for them.
As for any communication to build and nurture a relationship, be patient and listen.
You gain more for yourself by giving others what they need.
3. Find champions
Coming back to the right team (I mentioned above), find internal champions. And I mean in both camps. On your side, make your managers engaged with the collaboration. On the university side, identify the key practitioners then involve them early during the discussion so you and your managers learn to know them and establish a working relation that will support and champion your collaboration.
It can help you overcome barriers. No secret, money makes the world go around.
Your relationship should run smoothly if you bring some to the table. Nevertheless, it will depend on the team, the negotiations (including the elephant in the room: IP) and the interest of the academic to work on the project. IP is a sticky point that I have mentioned but not discussed as it’s a whole blog in itself … some would say it would be a book.
If you don’t have any funding, I would suggest you walk before you run, avoid jumping straight into a grant application. You will spend a lot of time writing it and the funding bodies will still notice that you don’t have an established relationship with the academics.
How do you establish the relationship? Well, as in any other, you start small. with universities, you can start by sharing compound or facilities, you can fund a student. It takes time to build trust and create good communication channels.
A great example of overcoming barriers is the incredible work with the Oxford-AZ vaccine, great partnership. This wouldn’t have been possible if the university hadn’t established a good working relationship with the company … and, of course, there was a lot of cash injected too!
Before I go, let me tell you how Afin is making it work with universities?
In this blog, I’ve suggested simple ways to improve collaborations with universities. You're already using them when you connect with others. At Afin, we facilitate the process. Our secret is that we know universities and how to overcome their barriers. When we work with innovators, we become part of their teams. We’re their champion; we fight their corner and we ensure that everyone plays to the same tune.
It was a quick overview of collaborating with universities. If you have any questions or comments, contact us. Let’s continue the conversation, subscribe to the blog and make collaborations happen!