Editor's Note: Chad Hardaway is the deputy director of the Office of Economic Engagement at the University of South Carolina and the executive director of the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator.
In recent years, colleges and universities have experienced diminishing levels of federal and state research funding, simultaneous with ever increasing innovation demands. As a result, many institutions are turning to new funding sources, such as industry, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits and philanthropic groups to fill the gap.
Over the last 15 years, I have worked in academia to build lasting partnerships between universities and private businesses. Along the way, I've seen examples of what to do and what not to do. A successful partnership brings critical investments into a university, creates opportunities for hands-on student training and builds a pipeline of future talent for the company partner. But it's not all easy wins. Successful partnerships require strong relationships and strategic coordination.
If you're an academic aiming to bring a partnership to your own institution, I commend you for stepping up to the plate. Here are the five common missteps and how to avoid them.
The 'fundamental cultural mismatch'
Corporations don't know how to buy what universities have, and universities don't know how to sell what they have to corporations. If there's one sentence that sums up the biggest challenge facing partnerships between higher education and industry, this is it. There is a fundamental cultural mismatch between universities and corporations.
Most professionals working in universities don't have a sales mentality because the nature of most academic work is geared toward publication and advancing the depth of knowledge in a particular field, not for direct introduction into the marketplace. Meanwhile, companies may not understand how to frame their research needs and, more importantly, who they should be talking to. When they do find what they're after, they have trouble commercializing the product without tripping over university rules, regulations and red tape.
This disconnect has to be considered throughout the process and managed from the beginning. It's essential that all parties learn to speak each other's language. Having a team on campus or engaging consultants composed of former private sector professionals can create a necessary entry point for businesses to engage with the university.
Faculty have unclear, overlapping roles
In a university environment, there are numerous and overlapping responsibilities. Unlike the corporate world, where entire departments are dedicated to building partnerships, many universities have been slow to catch on in any formal way. When you consider all of the different stakeholders on the university side (among them faculty, deans, chairs, presidents, vice presidents of research, development staff and research campus professionals), "business development" is rarely anyone's top priority — or a priority at all.
Buy-in must come from the top and from within research departments. Internal air traffic control is needed to keep things organized and on track. Otherwise, it's easy to be overcome by events, preventing any progress whatsoever.
Opportunities are often reactive
Ideally, a university would first identify its strengths, figure out how those can be viable in the marketplace and then proactively pursue opportunities to leverage those values.
This rarely happens in practice for a host of reasons. Typically, a company looking to partner will reach out to a university. While still lucrative, what the corporation is looking to accomplish may not be aligned with existing research priorities or needs. Rather than start with a targeted ask, this inbound approach causes a scramble on the university side, as the request filters down from leadership. As each department weighs in, the result is a cobbled-together idea that often doesn't advance research and can ultimately have little value for the company.
Universities should proactively assess their strengths and do their homework to confirm they overlap with the corporate partner before initiating these conversations. Or, at the very least, they should design an ask — with the input of faculty — so the donations, investment or course is aligned with existing priorities and not in conflict with them.
Leadership is lacking
Leadership is not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have. Even a well-defined strategy can fail because of a lack of follow-through. Effective partner development requires leadership and thoughtful delegation. Tasking multiple departments or individuals with a portion of the job is a recipe for failure and a waste of everyone's time. Rather, a center of the wheel needs to be clearly established.
Universities must grant ownership and decision-making power to someone within the institution. This arm must have clout, strong internal relationships, decision-making authority and the ability to set an agenda and bring various departments together toward a common goal.
Partners' commitments are overestimated
Just as a deal with no leadership support can't get sign-off, a deal without a solid foundation won't have any follow-through. What's really needed is a ground-up approach, led by an individual or department on the ground who can shepherd university resources in pursuit of strategic goals.
When this happens, buy-in from those necessary to execute is baked in. It allows an idea to fully mature before being taken to leadership for ultimate approval, dramatically increasing the chances of success.
Creating and nurturing these partnerships can be challenging, but it isn't impossible. By learning from some common pitfalls, universities can develop win-win partnerships that benefit students, researchers and private industry.
Top image: Students provided tours during the Digital Transformation Lab ribbon cutting at the University of South Carolina in September 2018.