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Establishing Contacts: Lessons Learned from the Researcher Guidebook

April 23, 2024—As UIDP President and CEO Anthony Boccanfuso often notes, “Organizations don’t collaborate. People do.” Connecting with the right individual can make or break a collaboration before it even starts, but navigating an outside organizational structure and finding like-minded individuals with the power to forge a relationship comes with a host of challenges. For researchers looking to find partners, understanding how to establish the right contacts is crucial.

Wide networks

According to the six handshakes rule (also referred to as six degrees of separation), all people are six or fewer connections away from one another. Ideally, previous relationships or contacts of contacts form a network that can be leveraged to find collaborators in other organizations. Asking contacts you already have at a university or company about finding the right person there for a particular project can help push collaborations forward. But if you don’t have any existing connections in an organization, there are other ways to find people who can help.

Organizations have networks that can be leveraged, even if you don’t already have personal connections in the network. Large companies and research institutions may have professional connectors—academic engagement or corporate engagement professionals, respectively—who can help researchers make contact with someone they’re hoping to collaborate with. For researchers in academia, other faculty members may also have experience with company partners to leverage. Sponsored programs offices or offices of development or advancement can help make connections with their contacts, and some institutions have dedicated economic development professionals who are well-connected with local industry. Leveraging alumni is also an option (see the UIDP Leveraging Alumni Networks Guide for more information on how alumni can strengthen research partnerships).

Company researchers (as well as other representatives) can also use peers’ connections to establish a relationship, even without a formal engagement office in-house. For all sectors, presenting at professional conferences or serving on a committee or board, visiting other research organizations that do related research, and engaging with other professionals online are ways to build a network that can help support future collaborations.

Conference presentations, publishing in high-impact journals, or even posting about research interests on social media platforms can help give projects the visibility they need to attract potential partners. An updated research website that offers information on their labs and upcoming projects creates a direct avenue for interested parties to inquire about collaborations, especially if it’s linked to your company or university website.

Beyond intentional network building, collaborations are often fueled by serendipitous encounters—personal interactions that happen at the right place and the right time. For more about serendipitous connections and networking, see UIDP’s Networking with a Purpose, which explores ways to encourage these interactions to build relationships and expand research collaborations.

Researching researchers

Patent literature and vendor platforms that crunch this data can help identify researchers in a specific field of interest, and universities often feature their researchers and projects on the organizational website or in a searchable database. Institutional newsletters and other publications often highlight successful research initiatives and standout faculty. Government agency award databases are also a valuable source of information, often listing the scope of the project and information about the lead investigators.

One of the key challenges to finding potential partners is navigating organizational structures. Even within a sector, roles and structures vary greatly from organization to organization. UIDP’s Comparing Internal Structures Guide details examples of both university and industry structures, as well as the different types of offices, titles, and functions. Knowing what titles or offices to look for in a potential partner organization can help identify the right people to contact to discuss a collaboration.

Why it matters

Starting a new research relationship can be daunting, but knowing where to start searching for the right connections is the first step. Creating a solid foundation by connecting with the right individual is key to establishing a partnership that can grow and expand, bringing the beneficial outcomes that everyone is looking for.

We want to hear from you. How do you establish connections in new partner organizations? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.

This 3-Minute Read is part of a series based on the Researcher Guidebook, a public resource published by UIDP. Our members have access to a sequential learning path and Quick Guide developed to help researchers tap into our collective knowledge and clearly understand their pivotal role in cross-sector research partnerships.