Prospective industry partners often do not know where to look to find the best match for their needs.
The highest-performing universities take a proactive approach to gathering both internal and external information and developing pathways between researchers and potential partners that highlight where interests, expertise, and needs overlap between the institution and potential industry partners.
Under a partnership demand generator model for industry engagement, universities centralize responsibilities in a liaison office for communication to potential industry partners. This liaison office manages inbound requests for research partnerships but more importantly seeks out potential partners through in-depth industry needs assessments, which yield a road map of how a company’s R&D needs align with the university’s research strengths.
This road map highlights how the university’s research assets can support a particular partner’s goals and highlights the expected outcomes of research partnerships. Industry liaison office (ILO) staff also serve as ambassadors to faculty whose research interests overlap with the goals of potential industry partners. In addition, the unit’s unique blend of industry and academic research knowledge allows the ILO to serve as a matchmaker between the university and companies interested in sponsored research partnerships.
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This demand generator model is best exemplified at The Ohio State University’s Industry Liaison Office. This office conducts internal research priority identification to understand the university’s research strengths and which PIs are driving the research in their respective fields with the intent of mapping these areas of expertise to industry interest. Simultaneously, the ILO staff conduct industry audits to understand which markets possess needs answered by research happening on campus, and which companies offer a high likelihood of success if the university approaches them for a potential partnership.
The industry-need identification is deep and detailed as well as forward-looking; the goal of this deep-dive is to identify what research needs an industry partner will have in the next three to five years. This knowledge is acquired through a wide-ranging review of standard and less conventional sources, such as job postings, marketing briefings, patent filings, and two-way listening posts. With this foundational information, the ILO can propose the university for many of the potential industry partner’s upcoming strategic initiatives. This has the added benefit of offering a multitude of long-term partnership options at once.
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With internal research strengths identified and latent industry needs uncovered, the ILO staff are able to generate a partner’s possible unarticulated needs road map. This road map highlights the company’s short-term and long-term needs, and aligns them to the university’s research centers, departments, and stand-out investigators. The map also provides further information on individual investigators, such as their grants, patents, and manuscripts, which allows the company to select their “dream team” of researchers for pending partnerships. The onus of encouraging the PIs to participate is then shared between the ILO and the industry partner, who must jointly create an enticing pitch to recruit the best investigators to the team.
For any PI uncertain or skeptical of industry engagement, the ILO can support the industry partner in crafting an agreement that addresses the investigator’s hesitancies, such as flexible IP terms or removing publication barriers. In total, these maps require between four and six weeks to create.
In the end, these roadmaps offer a menu of potential partnership options, ranging from small scale and short-term to large scale and long-term. By identifying the company’s underlying needs, they also present the impression of a diligent thought partner, which opens the door to repeat business both within research and to the other industry touchpoints across campus. This broader thinking promotes larger partnerships, which can include several different financial investments across sponsored research, undergraduate and graduate assistantships, paid internships, equipment and facilities developments, and corporate philanthropy.
The maps also serve as a crucial tool for communicating the potential outcomes of sponsored research partnerships. Companies are intentionally focusing their resources on research that will yield some sort of tangible outcome, such as datasets, intellectual property (IP), or full-blown products that can provide a path to a return on the research investment. Although these outcomes are difficult to predict at the onset of partnerships, competency maps present a breadth of potential partnership models and a depth of engagement across numerous areas that, over time, can yield greater returns than attempting to engage multiple partner institutions across multiple parts of the university.
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