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Inking a co-location deal is just the beginning: Now it’s time to keep promises

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

Convincing a key industry partner to locate on campus is a big deal — but then what? How will you prepare to welcome your partner into the campus community? What are the keys to optimizing the benefits of co-location, and developing an even deeper partnership going forward?

In many ways, making that important “sale” is just the beginning — or, in the words of Gregory Deason, senior vice president of alliances and placemaking at Purdue University, “we have key company partners like Saab Aerospace, and Rolls Royce, that interact with Purdue on a variety of fronts; we want to make sure that any promises we may have made that convinced them to be here get met, and that we look for ways to deliver mutual value to the partnerships we have with them.”

“All these projects are so different and unique in nature it’s hard to categorize one size fits all,” adds Aric H. Bopp, CEcD, executive director of economic development and innovation zones in the Knowledge Enterprise Development unit at Arizona State University. “There are some companies we have existing relationships with prior to their location in our Innovation Zone — others, not as much. And some are entirely new to the university. We try to avoid the pitfall of over-promising; we call it managing expectations. These things take time; they do not happen overnight.”

“The way we do it is we put a single person in charge of the relationship — a relationship manager,” adds Kent Glasscock, president of the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization. “Their task is to work with the company to identify avenues of positive engagement which the company wants to pursue, and through the entire process of attraction we’re always focused on the desired benefits of the co-located partner and the university.”

Starting the process early

The outreach considered so important when co-located companies arrive on campus “happens all the way through the process — from first engagement — because that’s our way of doing business,” says Glasscock, “So when co-location occurs, we already have in many respects a roadmap. As the company and we evolve that roadmap, the rules of engagement evolve as well. For instance, say we had a co-located firm and the firm wanted to — which all firms do — assess and attract talent into their company. We’d work with them on internships but do it in such a way that it is designed specifically to address the needs of the company. A fully engaged, co-located company is having a staff intern program that’s 12 months of the year. With an office on campus staffed by people from the company, they can attract interns, put them on real projects the company has, and work in collaboration with others in the company beyond the co-located office on campus or near campus. It’s worked out tremendously well.”

“One of the starting points goes back to understanding where success is most likely,” adds Deason. “A plot of land for a company like Saab could look like many others [on university campuses]. What makes them want to be in this location? It’s a talent question — not just to recruit but to retain.”

In other words, he continues, when he and his team think about recruiting for co-location, they begin by asking what makes the university different — “what we’re ranked highly and known for as a university.” The answer to that question, Deason says, “tells us where we’re likely to find success; we’re likely to go with industries that match up with what we’re good at.”

Bopp reiterates that not all co-located companies are ‘equal.’ “For big partners, proximity matters,” he notes. “They want convenience and community; for internships [for example], being close physically is a benefit.”

The head-scratchers, he continues, are companies that have co-located but are not really maximizing the potential benefits. “Maybe it’s just a real estate deal, and they like that these are attractive places to do business, but it’s a missed opportunity, and I want to target that,” he says.

Contact points

Once co-located companies have arrived on campus — or even before — who reaches out to them? “ASU has done a really smart thing; they have a dedicated individual specific to the Innovation Zone portfolio to make sure those companies maximize their opportunities with the university,” says Bopp.

However, he stresses that those individual relationships do not constitute a fully developed relationship with the university — and it can be somewhat misleading to the company without the right follow up. “It’s like having a good blood pressure reading and saying you’re healthy; you could be diabetic,” he offers. “It’s great when that initial relationship exists, but how do you build off that?”

Fortunately, he continues, “ASU has a dedicated corporate engagement and strategic partnership team where they’ve assigned a specific individual [to make] introductions from the community. We know all the local contacts, organizations and players and can make those introductions for them — make [the company] feel at home and make it as easy as possible to network and interact so they do not feel like an outsider to the region. Companies can come from all over the world, and within a week or two be introduced to almost anyone they want at the university and in the community.”

“That’s why we have relationship managers; we facilitate the campus introductions,” adds Glasscock. “That person can make entrée into the needed parts of campus, so that we are the introducer, the covener, the aligner with their cross-campus relationships. Also, we have very strong and rich economic development [outreach] to our innovation partners, so they have relationships across the community — business relationships that can be easily engaged by the company as they need to. If there are skill sets in the community of interest to a co-located company, we also facilitate those introductions.”

“My team is aimed at making sure we’re able to recruit the right kind of talent, and then engage that talent in the community,” says Deason. “We had 30 people move from Sweden [with Saab], and 30 families with Sweitzer came from Seattle. How can they integrate into the community and find enrichment? Some of them like the arts, some like walking trails, some like craft breweries. A lot of our team time is spent finding those things and other individuals who like doing those things so they can build friendships.”

On a recent Saturday, he relates, they held an event called “Tap N’ Go,” where they closed 10 blocks of downtown Lafayette and all the craft breweries had booths, with live music playing. “A lot of people spent time networking,” Deason reports. “People who cared about the arts scene and craft breweries got to meet each other, as well as local music players.”

Engagement opportunities

Of course, these companies are co-locating with a university; they will now be part of the university community. How are opportunities for engagement on campus identified and enabled?

“We look within Purdue,” says Deason. “Through the company’s lens they can certainly do research and get solutions and look for or connect with a start-up. There may be technologies created at Purdue they could license, or they may want to upskill their employees; we can do that, and our team lets them know about the options.”

This all starts, he continues, with understanding what the company is interested in. “What would success look like for them, and what are their current notions about how Purdue might help them with that success?” he poses. “For example, there are remote workers here; what success factors are they trying to achieve as a person? As a company? We spend a lot of time in ‘triage,’ trying to understand what success is for that person and trying to put them in a position to take full advantage of what we have here.”

Upskilling might be another option. “It may not be of interest to all companies, but that’s our job — what can we do for the company?” says Deason. “We want to ensure we can have a relationship where we help establish awareness of the opportunities; we won’t fall flat by making them aware. Many companies can be really excited with just one or two things we can do for them — like major participation in athletics. Not every company is even interested in that, but we want to let them know it’s an opportunity.”

It is clear that from Deason’s perspective communication is critical. “We absolutely interface” with the industry partners, he notes, describing it as pan-Purdue situational awareness “to understand where they’re at. We want to know their current and past relationships, hiring patterns of students; that’s a great indicator of something they value here,” he says. “It could [start with a] single touchpoint, maybe licensing one technology or hiring a few students. That’s at least a point to start at, although we think holistically as to what could be more of more value to them in this ecosystem.”

That “awareness” extends into areas one might not readily think of. For example, Deason notes, “if they become long-term citizens, you’ll be driving the same roads. What does Trip Advisor say about the best things to do in our community? We’ve got a whole lot of experience with those things; it’s very deliberate because we’re trying to build relationships. In the Midwest, our people are very interested in that type of interaction.”

How do they let these new members of the community know about local events and other areas of potential interest? “You can tell them all day long to go to the home page of the Purdue website,” he says, but that’s not even a bare minimum. “You can get lazy, but we’re trying to push things in their direction. We physically send highlights to the leadership of the companies — often through e-mail. Another way is to literally give them a taste. For example, for Tap N’ Go we bought 40 passes. We asked the companies to express interest and we took as many as we could as guests.”

Another example is Purdue’s Presidential Lecture Series, which has featured speakers such as Condi Rice, George Will, Bill Nye, and Julie Wainwright. “It did not cost anything, but we did invite a lot of our partners,” he says. “We’d find champions to go and we host them.”

Matching company needs to expertise

Glasscock cites a number of areas in which the university has been able to reach out to co-located companies. “What I find is that from time-to-time companies need for existing employees to have short courses that match various capabilities of the university,” he shares. “It may be a six-week course; it could even be on soft skills such as leadership, but they’re always tied to the needs of the company and how to match them with our capabilities. Clearly, another avenue is sponsored research — and that happens, as you would expect, on a pretty regular basis. That can include more basic research, applied research, or it can also include testing and scientific validation; that’s not really sponsored research, but it comes in the form of service contracts. That’s a very positive thing, because the company gets third-party validation or non-validation of their innovation or science advancement.”

Connections are also made with faculty in staffed internship programs and in more “creative” areas like website development, where the university has linked co-located partners with local website development firms.

In addition, the KSU Foundation, the university’s strategic partner for philanthropy, acts in many respects as a private developer for the university. “On campus they have built office buildings that they lease space out to for university-connected corporate residency; we have a natural and very positive ability to have a component part of KSU take care of the company’s every need with regard to real estate,” says Glasscock. “That’s not true across the country, but in our case, we have an endowment foundation that understands in a town of 55,000 people you have a relatively high-risk profile for building speculative office space. So to advance corporate engagement at KSU and long-term as an investment on the part of the foundation, they have created an office park — two buildings that are full, and one contemplated to break ground this summer. This is a tremendous advantage for us.”

“We have such a robust economic development ecosystem it’s easy to navigate,” adds Bopp. “The Greater Phoenix Economic Council is recognized as one of the best in the U.S., our utility providers are fabulous, and the local communities and state economic development agency are also fabulous partners. It’s a great team that works well together, and the companies are beneficiaries of that. I sometimes overlook how good they are at making introductions because it seems so second nature, and it’s easy because we do it on a regular basis within our network of like-minded individuals.”

At present, he adds, his organization is not active in social events, “especially coming out of a two-year pandemic.” However, he says, “that thought process is in the works — and it’s probably a best practice to make sure companies that are new have the opportunity to be introduced to others in the park or Innovation Zone, and we hope to implement that in the next year or so. Whether it be a brown bag lunch or a food truck, we want to facilitate those serendipitous conversations as much as possible.”

Making it work

When it comes to “promises kept,” what does Deason consider to be the keys to success? “You need to know who you can have a relationship with,” he says. “You’ve got to play to those things where you’re really good — have a compelling story, the flow of talent, or research. Don’t try to be everything to everybody; that is a key. Also, I think you really need to take a critical look at how universities are allowing people to engage with like-minded individuals and create those opportunities. There is a certain subset of people [for everyone]. If you go to that, chances are you’ll see that finding someone you might like to hang out with is better than being at home that afternoon.”

In other words, he says, listen; ask yourself, “what are [your partners] interested in?”

And how do you know if you’ve been successful? “Some points can be highly objective,” he says. “Take your baselines — how many students were hired, how many dollars were invested in research, how many technologies were acquired through license,” he says. “A little more challenging is determining the quality-of-life experience. But if they recruit and retain people, that’s a great indicator. At times you may have the current scenario, where a company is considering co-locating, and the leader of a top company here said, ‘I can be helpful.’”

There is always the danger, however, of getting stuck in ruts. “Try to look at things a little differently,” he suggests. “A lot of our team members are people who are interested in experimenting, as well as relationship building.”

Bopp is also seeking to avoid those ruts. “We’re working on the possibility of formalizing some additional advantages [of co-location] that have not gotten approved yet,” he reports. “One specific example not approved yet involves core facilities — resources and assets — characterization facilities or any sort of advanced equipment that is very expensive, where companies can utilize them for a fee. Is there a way to provide a discount on fee-for-services if the company is co-located? We’re coming up with a list of 20 different ideas like that, and then we’ll try to narrow it down.”

Contact Bopp at 480-606-2006 or Aric.Bopp@asu.edu; Deason at GWDeason@prf.org; and Glasscock at 785-341-1816 or kentglas@k-state.edu.

Posted May 12, 2022