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University-Industry Engagement Outside Major Metro Areas: Workshop Insights

What do Stanford, the University of Alabama, Arizona State, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have in common? They’re all in non-metropolitan areas. And that was the focus of the workshop I attended this week to present on communication strategies—including the AMMO—that maximize the impact from university-industry collaborations.

Hosted by UIDP and the University of Arkansas, the “U-I Engagement Outside Major Metropolitan Areas” workshop brought together a diverse collection of higher education institutions—from wealthy and poor areas, based in rural locations or close to cities. These universities face common as well as unique challenges.

The Fuentek-developed AMMO for communications initiatives focuses on Audience (identify the target audience), Message (refine the core message to match the audience), Mechanism (select the best tool(s) for conveying it to them), and Outcome (determine the call to action and metrics for assessing success). (Copyright 2019; Fuentek, LLC; all rights reserved)

Research Parks: What Makes Them Successful

For example, local economic development is a goal for all of the attendees. Similarly, all face challenges attracting and retaining good talent—at the university, in the community, and at companies. One frequently discussed tool for achieving these goals is research parks.

This begged the question: What helps a research park be successful? The answer is: It depends. The logic and ability of non-metro universities to establish a successful research park vary quite a bit, as do the challenges associated with attracting corporate research funding and partnerships.

One common theme that emerged was companies’ interest in having access to undergraduate students. While the assumption is that faculty and graduate students are the draw, it appears that a research park’s success increases when undergrads are there too.

I would agree, based on what I’ve seen at North Carolina State University. During its first several years, NCSU’s Centennial Campus grew very slowly. The turning point came when the engineering school was moved onto the research park campus. Having the students there created a vibrant atmosphere that attracted more companies. That energy has continued to grow as more dorms and restaurants open on the campus.

Live, Learn, Work, Play is a good catch phrase for all the elements needed for a successful research park.

Forming Sponsored Research Partnerships

I’d also like to share some insights for universities wanting to establish more industry partnerships, based on the discussions held during the conference.

Distinguish the Transactional from the Strategic

Some partnerships are complex and require concierge-level support. Others are more transactional, where concierge service would be an inefficient use of resources. By recognizing the difference, you avoid unnecessary over-investing. Give strategic partnerships priority on concierge services. At the same time, look for opportunities to expand an existing transactional relationship so that it can grow into a more strategic partnership.

Identify the Right Person to Lead the Relationship

When forming a new partnership, the concierge (or other point of contact) needs both a broad understanding of what the university has to offer plus a deep understanding of a research area that’s relevant to the company. In some cases, licensing managers in the university’s technology transfer office (TTO) may be an excellent choice, since they are already familiar with the research and the researchers in a specific area. But if you add this hat to the staff’s responsibilities, the performance metrics and compensation also need to shift.

Each institution has its own structure and staff have varying competencies, so identify the right solution for your organization. Part of that is selecting the person who can be an empowered and integrated resource for the partner.

Give Them the Training to Fill the Gaps

It is unlikely that each person you select as a concierge will have all of the background information on intellectual property (IP) and contracting and foundation funding, etc. Each concierge must have at least some basic knowledge of IP and all the agreement vehicles that may result from a strategic corporate relationship. So provide concierges with the training they need to engage partners effectively.

Incentivize Cooperation

As my colleague Danielle McCulloch blogged about here, an organizational structure that separates the TTO from the sponsored research office (SRO) and the university’s Foundation (and so on) can get in the way of establishing partnerships. If the different groups have different databases, it’s difficult to share information. Beyond the technical issues, turf issues can make offices disinclined to share—they want to own and control the relationship with the partner.

To help break those barriers, set the metrics and performance rewards to encourage cooperation. For example, allow the Foundation to get credit if it helps an engineering department secure sponsored research.

These types of changes are slowly happening. For example, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln established a hybrid bonus structure for the heads of the TTO, business development office, and alumni relations office. Only 25% of their bonus is based on their individual performance; the remaining 75% is tied to their collective performance. This all-boats-rise-together structure incentivizes them to help each other get the most value out of every partnership.

Entrepreneurship and University Startups

I also appreciated this excellent session that featured Louise Epstein from the Walton Family Foundation and Javier Reyes from West Virginia University. Here is my take on the discussion.

I-Corps: A Valuable Program

All universities should leverage the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps™ program. Its main focus is to train faculty to become entrepreneurial. This leads to a broader culture change within the university community, thanks to participants’ excitement and stories when it’s over. It also has some key side benefits:

  • I-Corps serves as a filter to reveal the viable startups, eliminating the need for TTO resources to do this vetting.
  • Because a business coach is required, I-Corps helps identify the startup’s CEO. (That person wouldn’t donate time without wanting to join the startup.)

Entrepreneurs-in-Residence Programs

These programs can be extremely useful for entrepreneurial faculty, who usually want (and need) someone to guide them one-on-one through the startup process. When identifying the entrepreneurial mentors, look beyond business school faculty, especially if they don’t have business experience and haven’t been part of a startup. (Real-world experience is essential.) Instead, look for past CEOs and business people in your community. In particular, look for those who were successful and have retired.

How to Secure VC and Angel Funding

Times have changed for venture capital. Unlike in the past when you needed VCs to be located near you, money is more mobile and you can go to them. However, VC and angel funding will come in only if the technology and business plan are compelling. When faculty entrepreneurs complain about a lack of VC money, it’s more likely that they need support to create a good opportunity that VCs want to invest in.

BTW, alumni are a valuable resource for VC and angel funding. Non-metro universities can best connect with them by attending alumni events in big cities. When you meet with them there, invite them to visit campus and bring money back to the university that served them well.

Another insightful observation from the attendees was that VC money is not always in the community’s best interest. A VC’s goal is for the startup to be acquired as quickly as possible, yielding a profit at the exit. But what impact will that acquisition have on the region? Will those jobs be moved to the parent company’s location? The VC deal celebrated at its signing may be lamented a year later when those high-tech, high-income people leave town. That kind of brain drain is counterproductive to the economic development goal. So don’t assume it is always best to chase after VC funding for a startup.

5 Tips for Boosting University Startup Metrics

1. “Releasing” the TTO from revenue-generating metrics can boost the number of startups, since licensing to startups doesn’t generate revenue. (As I’ve noted before when it comes to TTO metrics, the “lots of startups” and “lots of revenue” metrics are diametrically opposed.)

2. Promotion and tenure (P&T) decisions that reward commercialization efforts can help incentivize faculty participation in startups and licensing. But don’t think that the policy sets the culture on this one—it just enables it. Changing P&T committee behavior is a whole different challenge, that’s beyond the scope of the meeting or this blog post.

3. Ask inventors to verbalize the impact of their discovery, which helps them envision the level of commitment they have to pursuing it further. This advice aligned nicely with the communication talk I gave during the workshop.

4. When the TTO sends its technology managers out as scouts—attending department seminars and then exploring potential applications with the researcher when they hear something interesting—this increases invention disclosures and helps identify potential startups.

5. If you want greater diversity and more women among your institution’s inventors and entrepreneurs, then proactively and visibly say so. To help make that goal a reality, connect with the AUTM Foundation’s Diversity & Inclusion Initiative.

A Well-Run Workshop

I’d like to end by offering my compliments to UIDP’s president Tony Boccanfuso. The entire meeting was very well run. Particularly helpful were the report-outs summarizing each session at the end of each day, allowing people to hear the insights from concurrent workshops they couldn’t attend. And kudos to our Fayetteville hosts at the University of Arkansas. Last night’s reception at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was lovely.

Wednesday evening’s reception for the UIDP–University of Arkansas workshop was held at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Copyright 2019; Fuentek, LLC; all rights reserved)

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