November 7, 1996

How to win friends in industry

by Mark Hollingworth

Mark Hollingworth is director of the Office of Liaison with Industry in the Faculty of Engineering

With the decline in funding for university research from government sources, it has become commonplace to hear that one solution is for McGill's academics to find funding by working on research projects with the rich and welcoming industrial community.

While industry is perhaps not quite as generous as some may believe, few companies will turn down the opportunity to meet and discuss the chance to work on a project with a McGill academic if the approach is made with the right attitude. So, the question is: What is the right strategy to use?

First, let's examine who these potential industrial partners are and what characteristics they share. In some sectors, for example the pharmaceutical industry, companies are used to working with academia on long-term research projects; the needs of industry quite closely match those of the Faculty of Medicine and, although problems do arise, the objectives, perspectives and cultures of the two collaborators are reasonably similar.

In most other industrial sectors, however, particularly those in what is often termed the "new economy," company personnel often see universities as little more than sources of well-educated, but poorly trained, young graduates.

Stories of protracted negotiations with the University over intellectual property (IP), contracts and agreements, etc., do nothing to encourage industry to break down the Roddick Gates to work with us. In addition, despite the fact that--or perhaps because--most corporate managers have spent time at university, academics are seen as theoreticians who have never worked in industry, who know little about life in the corporate world and who are now, due to government cutbacks, simply looking for alternative sources of research funding.

The feeling in industry is that most professors want to keep doing what they've been doing in the past, i.e., non-industry-relevant research, but that they now want industry to foot the bill. If that is how you feel, forget about making overtures to industry for funding--you're wasting your time.

Working with industry means creating win-win situations. The objective of professors has to be to see that the industrial partners' needs are satisfied, while at the same time ensuring that they also get what they want out of the relationship.

So, what exactly does industry want from such a collaboration?

Difficult as it may be to accept, it's important to recognize that industry does not need to collaborate with academics--it has managed quite well without them for years. However, if over the long term professors want to diversify the sources of their research funding, they do need industry. It must also be recognized that it's often a buyer's market for professors' services.

And the word service is key here--academics who begin building links with industry are like entrepreneurs starting a business. Just as academics expect a high level of service when they shop at Zellers, visit the gas station or purchase a service contract for their computer, so industry expects the same from its university partners.

Industry focuses on "deliverables," i.e., results--and often the methods used to obtain them are unimportant. It also wants the deliverables on schedule and within budget. These days, the most important aspect for companies is the "time to market" for any new innovation, marketing method or service.

Professors can develop the greatest new "widget" that has ever been designed, but if there's no market for it, if it's too expensive to manufacture, or if it doesn't fit with the company's strategy, the company's money has probably been wasted. A professor may be able to publish a paper, even obtain a patent and keep the IP, but his or her long-term relationship with the company will probably be over.

It's very important to remember that for a company, the costs associated with finding and hiring new employees are enormous. Hence, one of the main reasons companies want to work with academics is to ensure a steady supply of qualified graduates they can hire. Obviously, they hope that you will point out the best prospects among your students. They also realize that if they influence your research activities towards their area of interest, they will have "trained" graduates ideally suited to their needs flowing out of McGill. Ask Pratt & Whitney or Spar Aerospace how important that is!

Another item crucial for industry is trend analysis--whether it's technological, sociological or political, and whether it's in Quebec or Tanzania. Companies operate in global markets and they need to know (or at least have some expert's best estimate) what's going to happen in these areas. Such knowledge is extremely valuable to companies--look at the growth in the market for "futurists" and you'll understand. I've heard upper management in such high-tech companies as Mitel say it isn't the technological advances that will be important in the future, but knowing how the technology will be used. Academics in departments far removed from business, engineering and medicine can help them with that.

In terms of funding for projects, although IBM, Bristol-Myers Squibb or even the Cirque du Soleil may have research or marketing budgets of $10 million per year, it is all already allocated and accounted for--even finding $5,000 to finance a graduate student's work can be difficult.

And, in most companies, those budgets have been cut back enormously over the past few years. Everyone is fighting fiercely within the company for shrinking resources and the "slush funds" of the past rarely exist these days--that's precisely why corporate profits in well-managed companies are so high!

So, now that it's a little clearer what companies are seeking from working with academics, how do professors go about establishing links with companies? According to research carried out by Myriam Porteria at the Université de Montréal, there are three stages in the industry life-cycle of a professor: start-up, growth and maturity. The following are some of the key characteristics of the start-up phase:

First, professors need to evaluate what, if anything, they have of value to offer industry. This step will require reflection, imagination, flexibility, research and consultation with colleagues, industry and industry liaison officers. After all, what is valued within a university may not be valued by industry--and vice-versa.

Having identified some skill, knowledge or expertise that could be of interest, academics must then identify companies that may want what they have to offer. Again, with the help of colleagues, industry liaison personnel or the many directories, diskettes or on-line databases available now, it should be possible to develop a short list of companies.

It's at this time the professor realizes that he is an unknown--literally an entrepreneur or consultant trying to start his or her own business. Even after perhaps 15 years at McGill, that's precisely how industry will see them. Academics should be formulating a five-year plan--and as in any other start-up operation, they should expect that their "cash flow" will probably be negative in the first couple of years. This is a long-term project!

In order to get their first few projects, professors will probably have to accept ones that are not necessarily financially rewarding or, indeed, strategic to their research area. However, these projects can be used to gain experience, build a track record, and learn from mistakes when the risk is not too high.

Such work provides the opportunity to build a personal relationship with key industry people, perhaps the most important factor in building long-term links. And it's here that good communication skills are vital.

Academics, in general, are used to dealing either with students or with other academics. To deal with industry, professors need to learn another language and different cultural values. Mistakes will be made--hence the recommendation to start with smaller companies to gain experience before walking into IBM, Price Waterhouse or Glaxo, where a relatively minor error could cost one dearly.

During this period, professors must also learn about the industry structure, time and project management, key industry contacts, writing contracts, management of teams, etc. Offer to sit in on some meetings in order to better understand the company's objectives, strategies and culture. Look for opportunities to offer "value" to your new partner--even if it's only to help the company hire a summer student from McGill.

A certain degree of culture shock has to be expected as professors leave an environment where they are held in a certain esteem to go out into a world where they're unknown, where academics have a poor image as a whole, and where they have to compete in an entirely new environment with a different set of performance criteria. Again, it takes time.

The keys to success during this stage are to be proactive, to remain flexible and to offer a good service to the industry. For academics, used to functioning in relative isolation in a sector not known for its focus on service, this can be a difficult process. While working on a wide variety of projects, academics should try to identify a niche for themselves which has value to industry but which also represents a research interest and provides the opportunity to publish the scholarly and technical papers required to succeed within the university environment--the proverbial win-win situation.

Perhaps the most important objective during this start-up phase, however, is to build a strong base for a long-lasting relationship. Although a first project with a major corporation may bring no immediate financial reward, the company could, if it has its needs satisfied and likes working with you, be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding over the course of your career. The company should be treated as a million-dollar client from day one!

In summary, given the right attitude, academics in all faculties probably have something of value to offer industry. However, they will have to be good learners, persistent and patient, and to realize that it takes years to build a strong, long-term working relationship. The benefits can be enormous.

Working with industry offers opportunities to bring speakers into your classes to address industry issues with your students; it can represent an excellent source of inspiration for new ideas and synergy for research activities; it can provide excellent laboratory courses at the undergraduate level; it can provide opportunities for you to collaborate with your colleagues within McGill; it can provide work experience for your students; it can offer access to facilities and equipment that McGill cannot afford. The list goes on and on. Finally, and this is where I return to the importance of having the right attitude and approach, having put in place many of these examples of mutually beneficial collaboration, the relationship can prove to be a rich source of independent funding for your university activities.

One last thought. When I visited IBM recently, we met with key company personnel who had graduated from McGill only three years ago! The message is clear: this year's graduate is next year's industry contact. There's no better way to build your network than helping your students find work in companies with whom you'd like to work. Within a couple of years, they'll be controlling those all-important corporate budgets!