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Engagement offices look to ‘move at the speed of business’ and hold industry to the same standard

Excerpted from the May 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Managers of corporate engagement offices at leading research universities have long talked about the importance of “moving at the speed of business” to eliminate one of the key complaints that industry has had about academia. And they have been more than willing to do that — not only with express licenses and other streamlined agreement models, but with other changes in strategies and procedures. However, some insist that having accomplished that goal, they may actually be “out-speeding” their corporate counterparts.

“I think it’s important, because at end of the day industry is our buyer, and if we can’t move fast enough the buyer moves on,” says Keith Marmer, chief innovation & economic engagement officer at the University of Utah and head of its PIVOT Center. “We want to be physically as fast or faster than our industry counterparts — ranging from tiny start-ups to Fortune 100 companies.”

A few years ago, he says, PIVOT developed a tracking system for all its contracts — CDAs, NDAs, and so on. “We know how long [a document] is with us and with our partner, and we know that over the past year we are operating from one to seven times faster than our industry counterparts as far as turnaround of documents,” Marmer reports. And that’s just the “transactional” side. He cites improvement in the speed at which technologies are moved through the pipeline as well.

“We know in our work that time is often not our friend, and that is a reminder I give my team often,” adds Ofra Weinberger, PhD, senior director of commercialization and licensing with Columbia Technology Ventures and associate vice president for intellectual property & technology transfer at Columbia University. “We have all experienced markets changing under us, the IP landscape relating to any particular technology changing, and interests and particular priorities changing on the industry side. So, once we have found a suitable partner for our technology, we know that we must move ahead as quickly as possible to make sure the rights are documented in an agreement that gives our commercialization partner the ability to move into the next stage of technological development; moving it to the marketplace is very important.”

In short, she summarizes, “that is an area of tremendous emphasis as we think about what we do, how to do it better, and how to make our process as efficient and as navigable as possible.”

“Corporate relations officers and programs must function at the speed of business; we have to understand business timelines,” says Anne O’Donnell, senior executive director of corporate relations at UC San Diego. Like Marmer, O’Donnell insists that universities absolutely do that. “There is a perception that the university is slow, when in most cases — like [with] contracts — we’re faster than any business,” she asserts. “I think if you’re really customer service-focused, you want to function at the pace of business. Respond to e-mails if not the same day then at least within 24 hours, so they know they’ve been heard.”

And it’s not just speed in terms of absolute time, she continues. “We’re on an academic calendar; business is not,” she notes. “We have to appreciate what happens in their cycle. On our database we put the fiscal year of the company, which is not obvious to people. But I want to know if I’m at the beginning of the business budget cycle, where they can discuss programs and tee up funding, or at the end of the year — is there money left over? That’s a different conversation. We want to make our colleagues in business successful; I want to appreciate their metrics.”

Still, she notes, it’s not always the university that slows things down. O’Donnell recalls a recent negotiation that was nearing the finish line, but the industry partner insisted on changing one line in the agreement. “That starts the clock over. We would have signed it [that day]. It was their side” that threw the wrench, she says.

Quality versus speed

JoonHyung Cho, director of corporate relations and business development at The University of Virginia, believes the importance of speed is overrated. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I don’t think speed is what’s important; I think the quality of the deals is important,” he insists. “I understand why some people think we’re slow, but they are not fast. For example, I’m doing a deal right now where they took three months to respond to me. I got it on Monday and they said, ‘Can you kindly respond by Friday?’” Cho politely refused.

He claims he doesn’t really get complaints from industry partners about lack of speed. “I think it’s the expectations of [company] management,” he comments. “If they know the timelines of what we need and why we need that, and similarly on their side — due diligence, risk assessment. To me, it’s not just ‘get this out now.’ We need to listen to what they need, listen internally to what we want and need, and build proper structures.”

Cho notes that sometimes external stakeholders do not fully appreciate those things. “They may question why we can’t do it now, but I think that happens on both sides,” he insists. The conventional wisdom that universities are the slowpokes is, at least for many offices, “a lot of urban legend.”

Two key requirements

O’Donnell says there are two “ends” to creating the efficiency desired by both partners. “One end is customer service, the other end is knowing your customer,” she explains. For example, she notes, when it comes to campus visits you should share the ideal times to come. “They do not know when there are mid-terms or concerts; spend time letting them know when the ‘sweet weeks’ are to come to recruit,” she advises.

“I think it’s vital to get the contracts office in position early,” O’Donnell continues, and make sure they have a good understanding of a deal’s context when it comes to timing and turnaround. “They thrive on context; If I’m onsite I’ll ask them to lunch just so they have that context.” Since those departments are often a key factor in getting a deal completed, it’s a mistake to drop agreements on their plates without that a heads up. “We can’t do our job without tech transfer and contracts & grants. They’re exceptional people, they’re prodigious professionals, and I get very excited working with people that are that good. And they’re forward leaning — they want to do the deal.”

It’s also important, she adds, to prioritize the various tasks and challenges on your “table.” For example, she observes, “a lot of sustainability topics are important but not urgent; you may have five or six years to the goals. But what has to happen NOW?”

She noted that Anthony Boccanfuso, president & CEO of UIDP, has offered up “a great model” that enables you to illustrate what is “urgent,” what is “important,” and so on, to help keep the more urgent work moving while not losing sight of other projects — or determining with projects should be removed from the list.

“We use an impact effort matrix (a Six Sigma tool),” says Boccanfuso. “It has four quadrants: low effort-high impact, high effort-high impact, low effort-low impact, and high effort-low impact. We place initiatives into these ‘buckets’ when determining whether to continue efforts or discontinue them.” (See template in Figure 1)

“It’s amazing how the staffs get that,” O’Donnell says. “I think it’s about clarity on each side, knowing the timeline of your partner. I like finding the straight lines — what’s the critical path to get this done?” If it’s a new partner, where there is less familiarity, she says, “you may have to ask forbearance” at times.

Document management

To address the “transactional component” of moving at the speed of business, Marmer’s team built out a system for document management that tracks the date and time documents go back and forth. “First and foremost, it’s about accountability internally — to make sure we’re efficient,” he explains. “But then, as we started to see our numbers improve, it allowed us to look at what our counterparts were doing; if someone complained, did they have a valid case? If not, it’s not so much that you want to go back and say, ‘I’m faster than you are,’ but you can say ‘We’re actually moving at a turn time that is two to three times faster than our typical industry counterpart.’ That was important, so we could know for ourselves and stakeholders that yes, we are moving at the speed of business.”

In terms of the innovations themselves, the key questions were how to accelerate their movement and how to conduct research using similar approaches used in industry. “Academic research is often performed with similar goals but with different approaches,” says Marmer. “If we could harmonize our approach with the way that industry approaches research, then when IP results in a license or it goes to a start-up, they don’t have to redo the work.” To ensure that alignment, “we have people with industry, start-up, and investor expertise working in the lab with the faculty who do translational research every day, so they understand,” he says.

Marmer offers this example of making adjustments to satisfy industry’s need for speed. A CRO may already have an assay or mouse model that is really specific for a particular disease area. “Rather than trying to do it in the lab and come close, sometimes it’s better to outsource it,” he suggests. “Industry will use the best and fastest option they can access, so we try scaling our thinking that way.”

There’s a third piece to the “puzzle” that Marmer admits is “a little esoteric,” and that’s maintaining the relationship with your industry partners so that you do not prioritize transactions over relationships. “When the relationship is first there is ongoing dialogue, so you do not have to start over for any transaction,” he explains. “You’re familiar with their needs, you can be up to speed on how the company operates and what its interests are. If it’s an investor, it’s what their investment thesis is. You should not waste their time showing them assets that are just not part of that thesis.”

Strategies and tactics

When describing her approaches to improve efficiency, Weinberger divides them into her “strategy bucket” and her “tactics bucket” — what her team can do at a high level and what it can do in principle, and what it can actually do day-to-day on the ground.

“In terms of strategy, gone are the typical days when an invention is reported to the office, you meet with IP counsel and also test the marketplace, conclude it’s ready for license and go out and find a licensee,” she says. “By and large that’s not the rule anymore. Far more often we meet with IP counsel and also with industry experts — we have executives in residence. You consider how best to incubate and validate the technology, and get additional funds from one of a dozen accelerators we’ve launched over the last six years called L2M — lab to market. The important part is education — a bootcamp to help our academic innovators and the research team understand what steps are required to build a successful business. It’s no longer a handoff in most cases; it’s much more active — rolling up your sleeves and becoming a good partner for our licensees and industry investors.”

Internally, faculty are being educated on the critical steps involved in partnering with business, and the university has created guidance in the form of deal templates and principles that are important for all sides. “We’ve made a very serious effort in accelerating the process to come to a deal,” says Weinberger.

In terms of day-to-day operations, “our guiding principle, our objective, is to move technologies out of the lab where they were developed and partner with the best partner — one with the interest and the wherewithal to develop them into the best products for society,” she shares. “We strive to get the first deal — not every dollar. We look at public, comparable royalty and milestone terms so we can negotiate at fair market prices, and we consult with industry as a reality check. We’re cognizant we’re in repeat business and people do business with people they enjoy doing business with — which is what we strive to be.”

What she has found very effective — especially for ambitious deals or ones where terms might be a bit complicated, is involving business, legal, and all stakeholders in a discussion at the outset and identifying which provisions may be non-starters, and which are the most important and sensitive issues for both sides. “Once that’s out in the open, it’s a lot easier to discuss and come to an agreement that addresses those issues and works for both sides,” she comments.

At the end of a difficult negotiation, “we have a ‘red ball’ meeting if needed,” Weinberger adds. “If we found during negotiations that we were just redlining markups from side to side, we will convene a meeting with everyone in the room [or virtually] — business, legal, and the most important decision makers on both sides — and sit there and hash out the agreement, whatever the more difficult issues turn out to be, and hopefully walk out with smiles on our faces.”

Getting the team on board

Moving from a more traditional approach to one that moves “at the speed of business” must by necessity include buy-in from your internal team. How did these industry engagement leaders accomplish that? “It was more of a traditional approach,” says Marmer. “You begin with articulating your vision and then establishing the appropriate goals and metrics. Many people bought in, and the ones that didn’t self-selected out and decided to work elsewhere.”

“You learn from experience,” adds Weinberger. “Different offices have different cultures; some are more group oriented, some more individual. In this day and age, there is so much interest and support for entrepreneurship and commercialization of innovative science from universities that across the country we are swamped — very busy and by and large understaffed. What we attempted to do — and COVID has only accelerated it — is incorporate more of a team culture and approach to work. We have a reasonably large office, yet everyone is still so very busy. As we get more involved and interested in incubating our most promising projects internally, that adds another dimension to our work — which we are very excited about doing right and incubating in ways [that reflect] the academic mission and are most meaningful to industry.”

“I tell faculty ‘You’re in charge of the content, I’m in charge of the process — let’s go!’” O’Donnell shares. “They can be comfortable in content and respect my position as I manage the process. What is the timeline? What is the business model you use? Who makes the decisions, and what is the process by which decisions will be made? I can be that process.”

She says she knows she’s been successful when a faculty member says, ‘What’s your timeline?’ “That means I’ve passed on this sense of deadline and timing to someone who’s going to be a PI,” she says.

And how have industry partners responded to these efficiency efforts? “I think they appreciate it — especially large corporations,” says Marmer. “They also have their own version of bureaucracy. It’s been my experience that if our industry counterpart sees we will make the effort to push quickly and can be proactive and communicative when things would take a little longer, my experience has been that they’re incredibly positive and understanding. If they hit a speed bump in their world I get it, and we know we’ll be patient together.”

He says he “believes wholeheartedly” that this has strengthened partnerships, “and while it’s not quantifiable, the majority of the feedback my entire team receives is that they are very appreciative of the efforts we make to approach the speed of business.”

“All I’ve heard is that we get things done,” adds O’Donnell. “We want to be the ‘go-to’ for finding out why something might be stuck. We want to solve the problem.”

“We do ask [for feedback from] companies who are our favorite partners,” adds Cho. “If you tell us we’re not fast enough or good enough, tell us who is and maybe we can benchmark them — but I rarely get that answer.”

CContact Cho at 434-422-0731 or; Marmer at 801-581-7792 or; O’Donnell at 858-229-5963 or; and Weinberger at 212-305-5198 or