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As engagement offices seek new hires, emphasis on relationships brings shift and challenges

Excerpted from the March 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Call it alliance management, a more strategic approach replacing a transactional one, or simply “holistic” corporate engagement — however you want to name the undeniable shift that has taken place in how universities approach their industry partnerships, one thing is clear: That new approach often requires staff with new and different skills — a clear departure from what managers may have been looking for just a few years ago. And while the degree to which that shift has occurred varies significantly from campus to campus, most corporate relations managers say the change has been undeniable.

“Moving from a technology-centric focus to an opportunity-centric focus” is the way Keith Marmer, chief innovation & economic engagement officer at the University of Utah, describes the shift he has seen in the industry these past few years. “This is challenging to articulate to faculty, because for years offices like ours have been talking about technology transfer, technology commercialization, patenting a technology, and so on,” he says. And whle technology development and related skills are important and desirable, “what I see is that for some more entry level and mid-level positions, relationship ability becomes really, really, important.”

Evan A. Facher, PhD, MBA, Innovation Institute director and vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees. “In the last couple of years, we’ve begun [to emphasize] partnering ability,” he shares. “It’s like what biotech and pharma companies do to get customers on their side; try to find ways to speak the same language.”

Oftentimes, he continues, “the Rosetta stone is to take someone who did it and can speak to their colleagues. Post-docs may not understand how to get a transaction done with a partner if they have not been in that world.”

At MIT, Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of the Technology Licensing Office, Catalyst, and the Office of Strategic Alliances and Technology Transfer, notes that because five groups in all fall under her “umbrella” there is not one single approach to hiring. “We still look for technical expertise — someone with technical and legal expertise, but [also] high emotional intelligence,” she shares. “Although I will say, as we have learned over the years, it does not really matter what it says in your resume; it’s people skills and relationship skills you begin with in your team, not outward skills — to see if a person will work well in your environment.”

But for John C. Roberts, PhD, interim executive director for MIT Corporate Relations and interim director for Alliance Management, when it comes specifically to corporate relations staff, the focus is tighter. “I do not want to speak for MIT overall, because we are not the only entities at MIT that do corporate engagement — although it is somewhat centralized in us,” he says. “But just for corporate relations, there has not been a shift; the way we were set up, relationship skills were absolutely critical.”

In the distant past, he observes, “we hired people who were towards the end of their careers, mostly in industry, when it was too early to retire but with the desire to engage in something new, and we built on their expertise.” Their technological knowledge, he notes, might be dated, but their relationship skills developed over their years of experience served them well. “They could be very, very rich and productive in forming relationships in general.” Even when he was hired more than eight years ago, says Roberts, some of those veterans were still at MIT, working into their 70s. “It’s a very addictive job; you’re able to deal with smart people and try to create something,” he comments.

The University of Florida faces a broader challenge when it comes to staffing, according to Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president for commercialization at UF Innovate — and it’s a challenge that is not unique in this labor market. (UF Innovate comprises Tech Licensing, Ventures, Pathways, and an Accelerate program, which includes two business incubators, The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech.)

“From our side — and I’m in Gainesville Florida — it’s difficult to get people here, so there is a certain level of ‘I gotta use what I can get,’” says O’Connell. “If I had my druthers, I’d be biased for a relationship person, primarily based on how I like to run the shop — more so in corporate engagement, needing people who understand relationships, managing and fostering relationship-building. That means people who realize this is a long game, not a short game. If I look for single transactional, call it technical staff, it’s a person who values taking three to five years building a relationship with Pfizer, and they recognize the value and write a big check.”

At the same time, he continues, to bring in someone to work with Pfizer on business development who does not know therapeutics at all means you just have a university administrator. “If you do not know the industry, you’re at a loss as well,” he observes. “What’s that mix; 60-40 [favoring relationship]? 80-20? Both elements need to be there.”

Excerpted from the March 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at