Industry engagement offices shifting away from centralized model, but holistic goal endures
Excerpted from the December 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.
It wasn’t all that long ago when there seemed to be nearly unanimous agreement among industry engagement leaders that the ideal office model was a centralized structure which served as the “front door” to all partnership-related activity on campus. It was a structure like this, they reasoned, that would most naturally serve to foster the type of holistic relationship with industry partners their universities all desired.
In recent years, however, even university structures that were perceived to set the standard for this type of model have found themselves tinkering at the edges — and sometimes even more deeply. Today, a variety of models can be found — not intended to shift away from the holistic goal, but rather to serve as perhaps even more effective ways to achieve it.
“There’s not just a lot more variety, but a move to more focused groups,” says Joseph B. Havrilla, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship in the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships. This less centralized arrangement employ separate but related group “like in my case,” Havrilla explains, “[we have] one focused on commercialization and translation activities with industry and with VCs, and separate groups focused on philanthropy, internships, and student hiring. And I think it’s for a very good reason.”
That reason, he asserts, stems from a desire to speak the language of business. “Most large companies are structured in a manner where they have staff and research functions that are separate,” he says. “Philanthropy is a separate group as well, and each wind up dealing with different people.”
This trend away from a centralized structure also rings true to Keith Marmer, chief innovation & economic engagement officer with Partners for Innovation, Ventures, Outreach & Technology (PIVOT Center) at the University of Utah. “I definitely think that’s fair to say,” he states, noting that he has heard about a number of similar structural adjustments “in chatting with folks around the country.”
Some of this trend, he adds, started as federal research funding began to flatten out and industry started looking for increased sources of research funding. “But it spans that holistic view that industry partnerships could also improve access to quality jobs after graduation, engagement of alumni, and recognition of our mission to do public good,” he says. “If anything, that has increased in nature, and as that increase has come about, it probably in some way is driving this broadening of models.”
The PIVOT Center itself has “pivoted” somewhat. It was initially established as the university’s focal point for industry interaction, and the university recently announced the creation of new Corporate Engagement Office.
“Looking back at some of the corporate engagement centers, while I think the idea is great there was not enough buy-in at some universities,” adds JoonHyung Cho, director of corporate relations and business development at the University of Virginia. “Universities are sometimes conservative when it comes to change of structure — more traditional in how things are organized.”
Tweaking the model
Even universities that pioneered the ‘central office’ model have recently shown the desire to make some adjustments. Take, for example, the University of Michigan. Their Business Engagement Center was considered one of the prime examples of this model, and yet there was somewhat of a reorganization a couple of years ago. “It had nothing to do with the fact that the Business Engagement Center was not carrying out the mission assigned to it, because it was beautifully,” insists Kelly B. Sexton, PhD, associate vice president for research and innovation partnerships. “In its 14-year history we had a significant increase in our corporate engagement, as measured both by philanthropy and research expenditures.”
So why the change? “It was because the culture had changed so much,” says Sexton. “Faculty was more interested in working with industry, and what we started hearing was, ‘We need support.’ There was a ‘front door’ for industry, but what about faculty?”
As a result of that culture shift, U-M conducted a six-month-long review of the current expectations of the Business Engagement Center — and its structure and operating model — while also benchmarking other universities.
“One thing that really resonated with the University of Michigan was an approach that focused on faculty service when it comes to engaging in corporate research,” she comments. “At the time, MIT was two years into their reorg with the creation of their Office of Strategic Alliances and Technology Transfer. We spent a lot of time talking to them and understanding the lessons. We needed a single interface with faculty that wanted to connect with industry — in sponsored research, patent licensing, or forming a start-up company. Our group, Innovation Partnerships, aligned behind that singular interface with faculty, and for companies who also wanted to hear about interesting early-stage start-ups they should connect to.”
And what was the story behind Utah’s shift to a distinct Corporate Engagement Office? “Some of the early work goes back several years, when we pursued the APLU Innovation and Economic Prosperity designation,” says Marmer. “It involved a long self-study, talking with stakeholders on campus and across the innovation system. There was pretty consistent feedback that it was not clear who various sponsors should talk to, and who was responsible for certain functions. That was sort of the genesis.”
Interestingly, he continues, that role was envisioned as part of PIVOT Center. “The thought was, ‘Well, you engage with industry, so we’ll lay corporate engagement here,’” he shares. “But there was not a specific top-down mandate to say, ‘These are the things you should have primary responsibility for, these are the things you have a coordinating function for, and there are other things you should track, monitor, and have awareness for.’ As we began to go through stages of implementation, it became obvious pretty quickly that we did not have somebody empowered and identified as our chief corporate engagement person.”
Holistic focus still rules
The shift away from a centralized office for corporate engagement activity in no way indicates a diminished emphasis on pursuing holistic relationships with industry partners, say the experts. According to Havrilla, the importance of holistic partnerships has “absolutely” not changed.
“The better, the more comprehensively you can understand all the potential ways in which a company can engage with the university and understand a company’s interests and expectations in those potential engagements, the better the university can satisfy those needs and build a broad, long-standing relationship,” he says. “It still remains that, in many cases, broad industry partnerships start either with student hiring or internships and expand from that.”
On the other hand, he adds, “it’s not unusual as well for an industry advanced innovation group to reach out to an office such as mine and start engaging in research questions.” These varied approaches by industry, he explains, have led to a “less holistic” structure internally, if you will, while still pursuing those holistic partnerships. “They come in with focused questions or discussions around specific research that has nothing to do with the fact that they may have alumni, or they hired some students,” he explains. “That’s why you see this integrated, specialized approach rather than a comprehensive, holistic structure approach evolve along many universities; it allows us to specialize.”
“They are two different things,” adds Cho. “There is a functionality of holistics — the work we do … The other is, are you holistic as an office?”
Structurally, he continues, he is part of the advancement team. “But that does not mean it’s the only thing I think about; I think holistically,” he observes. “Internally we have opportunities and values, rather than a zero-sum game. In the end, that connection internally and externally can help achieve what my leadership is interested in — which is more philanthropic dollars.”
In other words, he summarizes, regardless of the office structure, “my goals are still the same — represent the university in a holistic way with corporate partners. If leadership understands that, it’s less important what structure I’m in.”
“The concept of these holistic relationships with companies is still very important,” says Sexton. “Our office is focused on the research mission — corporate research, licensing, start-ups. But the University of Michigan is an incredible university, and very large and decentralized. That’s why we have an office of corporate relations, and an office of university development — [both of which] our unit works with.”
Those darned siloes
Regardless of office structure, one of the eternal bugaboos of industry engagement efforts is the challenge of siloes. How do leaders minimize siloes while still trying to maintain a structure that is set up to target different industry needs with specialized units?
“For our group, we seamlessly move through 19 schools and colleges and other campuses; we always have,” says Sexton. “We’re also fortunate to have the size where a number of our colleges actually have corporate business development within their office of research — like engineering, or medicine. Where we’re able to support their efforts is in helping them to win corporate relationships when there’s an interest in research. [Industry partners] are our customers; we’re here to support them, and one of our goals is to bring more corporate research dollars to our faculty. They can call on us, ask our help in structuring that deal and getting over the finish line — just as if they were a faculty member.”
“One of the things we do at Pitt to make sure we stay coordinated across the ‘universe’ is to have an industry relations team that crosses all the functions of the university,” says Havrilla. “It meets periodically to make sure we’re all aware what of goes on with various partners.”
This “cross-silo working group” meets monthly, he continues. “We have a standing agenda, where each of the various groups goes through at a fairly macro level what goes on with industry partners, raising issues about any challenges they have that maybe somebody else in the group can help resolve or litigate, or opportunities where they’re looking for some way to open doors. It’s really a team-oriented approach to holistic managing.”
In reality, he observes, there are more commonalities than differences among these various models. “When I took this role we did a lot of benchmarking, where we’d go take a look at a lot of university structures,” he notes. “If they have a holistic corporate engagement group, you will see underneath it each of the specialized areas. They still have those groups, just under a common umbrella — and we have that through these working teams.”
The PIVOT Center is living through some of the challenges now as it works to integrate the new Corporate Engagement Office and communicate the shift in structure to its stakeholders — a process that is still evolving.
“We started with outreach to the key groups on campus — like advancement, larger colleges doing corporate engagement, and just talking through the creation of communication channels and efforts to delineate that this was not an infringement or a negative impact on anybody else’s effort,” Marmer reports. “Since then, there have been efforts to hold campuswide engagement and coordination of meetings. That is early on. But if nothing else, the early experience suggests that it’s helped to avoid the perception of siloes and of conflict.”
The goal, he says, is to integrate a newly distinct office across the range of departments its staff will interact with — and avoid creating any new barriers. “Part of figuring out where and how this individual and team should situate is doing landscape analysis — what units across campus have dedicated people working in corporate engagement, and their function,” Marmer says. “The PIVOT Center had the largest number of full-time jobs in broad corporate engagement, as well as the ability to adapt our people and our efforts so that we do not create a new silo, [but rather] integrate it in a clear function that leverages existing resources.”
“One way to avoid siloes is with more personal interaction — trying to understand their needs,” adds Cho. “Engineering will have different needs than a School of Medicine. Understanding [those needs] is a way to support that — it’s not one size fits all.”
Different approaches, common goals
Sexton notes that while there may be as many different models as there are universities, there is a commonality in her mind about what makes any model work.
“We’re all trying to build better connections with companies; we want to have meaningful corporate research collaborations,” she observes. “We need to be structured in ways we can put resources behind these big research alliances. Universities need to think about, ‘Okay if we’re successful, if we get a big master research agreement with a company that is expected to bring in millions of dollars over a specific number of years, who’s going to support that effort?’ You need someone to get up every day thinking about that relationship, working to broaden it, to make sure the company sees this as a positive relationship, and to make sure it’s healthy and growing.”
That alliance management aspect, she asserts, “should be common at every university seriously working to bring more corporate research funding to campus. In our model I’m able to tell companies that when they sponsor research at the university, they will have a point person who’s able to help them navigate campus, run calls for proposals, and unite them with faculty.”
Sexton maintains that “there’s no perfect model; every campus is different — different sizes, different priorities.” And even within your own campus, she adds, it’s important to continually assess the model and stay on top of how it is performing — although that’s not always an easy task.
Focus on metrics
“There are some things you can count — new awards, dollar amounts brought in — but, for example, we put so much effort into helping companies with talent acquisition but it’s hard to know if that translates into additional benefits to the university,” Sexton observes. “Sure, it helps students find additional employment opportunities, but does it trigger additional sponsored research dollars? The fact that it’s so hard to know is part of why we felt we needed a specialized unit laser-focused on the research aspect, and they need to be accountable and have metrics on how they’re doing in that specific area.”
“There are any number of ways” to measure performance, notes Havrilla, adding that ongoing assessment is something an engagement manager “absolutely” should do. “You want to look at absolute metrics — growth in year over year specifics, how you’re performing against your objectives versus your best-in-class peers.”
In fact, he recommends “an annual process on how you’re doing versus how everyone else is doing in areas you feel are critically important.” As part of that annual review, he continues, “what we try to do . . . is look at this data on an annual basis from a high-level strategic standpoint. Also, we have an incredibly automated system based on Salesforce to look at a dashboard of results on a weekly basis.”
He notes that “organizations tend to change over time in order to drive results in a certain area where they are lagging, or because of a change in strategy,” adding that the Pitt model has been evolving since 2019. “In Pitt’s case they felt a strong objective to drive a substantial increase in industry engagement at the scientific research level, sponsored research, tech transfer and translation — what I was essentially asked to pull together,” he relates. “We try to mitigate any loss in holistic relationships through this team. If we tend to lag behind … I can see where the university could decide to re-focus the resources.”
Similarly, the structural change at Michigan was driven by a desire to refocus on faculty as the primary client. “The reason we do that is if we take care of faculty and they find value, they are our absolute best business development professionals. They have great connections and are highly regarded,” says Sexton. She adds that an overview of measurables indicates the approach is working well.
Moving the needle
“We’ve been able to help move the needle,” she reports. “We’ve supported negotiations for 97 new corporate research awards — $38 million in new research corporate alliances. We think those are really great numbers for a partial ‘year one.’ The total number is $218 million, so we contribute to that bottom line and we’re proud about that.”
“We’re actually going through a process of refinement right now,” notes Marmer. “For example, when we first brought on a corporate engagement officer, the president said they wanted to set a long-term goal to grow to $150 million in industry sponsorship. We created a dashboard so we can drill down, monitor, and assess.” The plan, he explains, is to measure performance at the university level as well as the individual level, “and make adjustments, such as [becoming] a little more targeted in some efforts.”
Changes in priorities among upper leadership can offer the greatest challenge to establishing a consistent office model, notes Cho, particularly when new leaders come on board.
“I do think the model needs to be assessed from time to time — it just makes sense,” he says, but the ebb and flow in priorities can also make it difficult to apply a consistent framework to engagement efforts. “If it is faculty satisfaction versus industry deals, which one do you pick?” he poses. “If there’s a new president every three years, does that mean you have to change your model every three years?”
All of this leads him to conclude that the model being used it not nearly as important as the people implementing it. “Anybody can revisit what may be a trendy structure, but personally I believe it’s the people that do the work, not the structure, and you hope that leadership wherever you are supports the idea of a holistic approach,” Cho says.
Contact Cho at 434-422-0731 or email@example.com; Havrilla at 412-383-3773 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Marmer at 801-587-2347 or Keith.Marmer@utah.edu; and Sexton at email@example.com. u