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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.”

What managers look for

Given the industry shift in emphasis, what exactly are managers looking for in new hires?

“We certainly haven’t been shifting our requirements on job descriptions to say we’re lowering the barrier for entry from a PhD or MBA down to demonstrable customer relationship skills,” asserts Millar-Nicholson. “During the interview process we can gauge the rest.”

“I would say for my corporate engagement person it’s 75-25 relationship-to-technology,” adds O’Connell. “For my licensing people, I like them 50-50. I like someone who has those soft skills, the ‘closer’ piece — who knows how to get a deal done — someone who has long-term vision and can understand that big close.”

“Our transition is more trying to find people who are either aligned with the technical skills we lack as a whole as an organization, or who have some additional skills in business or finance, and then also a [specific] cultural background,” adds Roberts. “We have people who are native Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Latin American, or who at least have language skills for those areas. For 22 years we had a person as the lead for Japan. He lived in Japan for 20 years, spoke fluent Japanese, and his wife was Japanese; he ran the show from a cultural standpoint. Since then, we’ve hired two people from Japan and another who is native to both Japan and the U.S.; it’s been very productive for us in growing the relationships deeper.”

In terms of his program directors, he adds, “finding technical skills complementary to ones we already have is a challenge, but we try to do it — like when someone retired who was a chemical engineer; when he retired, we looked for someone with a similar background, but we have not found one yet.”

He concedes that in a situation like this, if he finds someone with the technical skills that fit in with something the team lacks, he might prioritize those technical skills more. However, he adds, “you can’t do this job without being able to build networks, to speak to people in high positions without being intimidated, and forming good bonds. It’s also a sales job.”

On the “Catalyst” side at MIT, adds Millar-Nicholson, where the team works with industry and faculty to “make sure we get the right deals in place,” you “absolutely look at technical skills, because your first job is addressing the need for the faculty member to understand the statement of work. Yes, customer engagement comes in, but fundamentally it is about technology.”

A shift to industry

Over the last two years, Pitt has created the Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships and is still looking to fill a couple of openings. “It’s largely staffed with folks who are not from the traditional academic world,” notes Facher. “They’re from companies — they’ve run marketing, product development, alliance management, fundraising. I just brought on board a data scientist for analysis to help us understand that partnership landscape.”

This approach is a distinct shift from an original vision “that was pure economic development in focus, and not industry partnerships; it has morphed,” he notes. “The interesting thing is that the industry folks have allowed us to change process flows and some policy landscape. They’re the ones who suggested we bring in a Salesforce capability. We manage our entire opportunity pipeline through Salesforce, modifying the off-the-shelf version. Without that [industry experience], it’s likely we never would have deployed it.”

The technical side, he continues, “is unfortunately the same size. We need it to be bigger; our pipeline is growing, but the [technical] staff is not growing at the same rate.”

“In the job postings we fill out, we emphasize certain things — like being able to communicate effectively, and to operate and work successfully with teams or as an individual,” adds Marmer. “We do not have the traditional ‘cradle to grave’ model of tech transfer; we eliminated it since I first got to Utah.”

With an inter-disciplinary model, he explains, everyone needs to communicate closely with each other. “I would not say I’m opposed to [technical skills],” says Marmer, “but to placing a primary emphasis on it. You need people with technical skills, but if they do not have relationships skills those technical skills are hard to apply.”

In terms of recruiting, he continues, “I think that in terms of the work we do you have to be ‘multi-lingual.’ If you’re a scientist and you’re able to speak with another scientist that’s great; you can build an effective relationship. But to turn around and work with an investor, or an entrepreneur, you may need to speak another language. If you’re able to communicate effectively by building rapport and then bring in the technical aspects, the relationship is built on the ability to communicate.”

Interviewing candidates

How does Marmer evaluate an applicant in terms of those skills that he’s looking for? “First of all, over multiple interviews,” he shares. “With COVID, it’s increased the challenge because of the inability sometimes to read body language.”

Generally, however, when he first interviews someone he may initially focus on whether they have ability to do the job from a technical standpoint, “But once they clear the initial bar, I spend two or three interviews in person where we’re highly unlikely to talk about anything tech,” he says. “I want to get to know you — how you relate to me. Are you relatable? Do I feel comfortable? Do I feel I can put myself in a faculty member’s mindset, or an investor’s mindset, and see how you relate?”

The more senior the position, he continues, the more time the meetings take. “I may even go out to dinner to see what it would be like to be social with you — not because I want to do that, but because a lot of the work we do requires ongoing social action,” says Marmer.

During the interviews, he says, he sometimes “pulls back” and asks questions designed to have the applicant try to be a critical thinker under pressure. “I want to ask [those] questions because people need to think outside of what’s done to evaluate a technology,” he explains. “I tend not ask them to tell me where they want to be in five years; nobody asks you that after they hire you. I want to know if you can make good decisions — if you can think on your feet.”

Shift makes a difference

For managers who have shifted their hiring strategies to place a greater emphasis on relationship skills, those shifts appear to have been successful both in changing the nature of their teams and in improving their ability to build industry partnerships.

“Yes, we have made a shift to relationship people who have industry background and knowledge, and by that experience can reach out and understand people on the other side,” says O’Connell. “Since I’ve been here, all but one employee we’ve brought in has industry experience.”

“Every time we bring in somebody new, they bring their own relationships,” adds Marmer. “When we talk about building relationships with industry, you’re not building them with a company — you’re building them with people. Industry relationships follow the people; the more we bring in people who are good at building relationships, the more industry relationships will follow.”

“For a lot of things — not just on the partnership side, but tech commercialization too — bringing people from outside academia to play senior roles allows us to bridge [gaps] in a very different manner; that’s the hypothesis we have now,” reports Facher. “Especially on the customer-facing side, people who have experience in that environment adds some credibility and allows us to have a better sense of how we need to change here. We’re not asking our customers to change; we need to change here to be parallel to what they think.”

And that applies not just to people, but to processes, he adds. By implementing Salesforce as a primary management tool, Pitt is now employing “tools in the same methodology as our partners,” Facher notes.

Since his team now has both PhDs and business development experts working together, “we have the best of both worlds,” he says. “We make sure we have the right people talking the same language.”

As a result, he continues, these staffing changes have both improved the ability to gain new partners and strengthened existing relationships. “There are two ways to grow our industry partners,” says Facher. “With existing partners, we can we upsell or expand. With folks we do not do anything with, we need to better understand their needs and how to identify them. With this new group, there’s a lot to explore in both of those subsets. We probably knew the customers to explore, but not the right bodies, with the right Rolodexes or ways to network.”

Even in the relatively short period of time since shifting staff hiring to a relationship-building focus and employing Salesforce to manage those relationships, he shares, “it has opened doors, brought life to new partnerships that we historically did not have, and allowed us to explore broader relationships in ways we have not before.”

As an example, he continues, “we now have a monthly opportunity report we can send out to all our partners — our top ‘X’ number of things we’re most excited about. This is not just random [outreach] to a mass market, but to specific connection points. People get a much more cohesive and curated set of opportunities. This allows us to engage in conversations with them, knowing they’ll be interested because we’ve talked to them previously and we know what they want to see. It allows us to have that level of engagement we’ve not been able to have before.”

Contact Facher at 412-624-3152 or efacher@innovation.pitt.edu. Marmer at keith.marmer@utah.edu, Millar-Nicholson at lesleymn@mit.edu; O’Connell at 734-276-3081 or jmoconnell@ufl.edu; and Roberts at 617-253-0412 or roberts5@mit.edu.

Posted March 18, 2022