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Recruitment or alliance management? Engagement execs play balancing act

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

Given the limited resources available at most corporate engagement offices, few managers have sufficient bandwidth to commit as much time, dollars, and staff as they’d like to both creating new industry partnerships and nurturing and expanding existing ones. When forced to make a choice, it seems that nearly all come down on the side of alliance management — although there’s a wide range seen in their approaches, and in the allocation of resources. Much of that differential flows, it appears, from staff size.

Take, for example, Rice University. “If I’m being fair, probably 95% of the work we do goes into maintaining and expanding industry partners,” says Leah Aschmann, director of corporate relations. “I say that with the acknowledgement that we have two and maybe one-quarter employees dedicated to corporate relations.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the University of Washington has a team of 10 people, one of whom spends about 50% of her time recruiting new partners. “She probably has the most experience in the corporate relations area,” explains Terry Grant, director of corporate relations. “It is not their full-time gig, but it’s a rigorous process for vetting and interacting with those vetted candidates.”

“We do not necessarily look at new partners, but what I look at are what opportunities are new versus renewed activity — old business versus new business,” says Cody Noghera, executive director of corporate research partnerships in the Jacobs School of Engineering, University of California San Diego. “When I think about investing our time strategically, it ends up increasing the amount of time spent on new business — just over two-thirds of our effort.”

‘Million-dollar question’

How an office’s limited bandwidth is allocated “is a million-dollar question, and probably a struggle for everyone; I’ll bet nobody feels well-resourced,” adds JoonHyung Cho, who just recently assumed the position of director of corporate relations and business development at The University of Virginia. Based on his years of prior experience in corporate relations, including active participation with UIDP and NACRO, Cho seems to come down on the side of alliance management. “I certainly appreciate the desire to recruit new, but I personally think you should take care of existing partners,” he says. “In maintaining the relationships, you know the landscape, and you know the depth is critical, because there’s not always a new company you can recruit, but you can always think about expanding the existing relationships.”

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this “two-sided” nature of corporate relations can be seen in the recent restructuring at the University of Michigan. The former Business Engagement Center had been jointly administered by the Office of Research and the Office of University Development as the central U-M office for corporate engagement, including sponsored research, corporate philanthropy, talent, and recruitment. Today, the Office of Corporate Relations is located within the U-M Office of University Development, and the Corporate Research Alliances unit is aligned with the U-M Office of Tech Transfer, as part of the U-M Office of Research.

“We’re in our very early days,” notes Chris Fick, director of corporate research alliances, which, he explains, is further divided into two sub-units — Alliance Management and Corporate Research Support. “Alliance Management came over from the Business Engagement Center and works with ongoing partners; we’re trying to expand that,” he says, adding that the sub-unit’s emphasis is “pretty much on just research.” The emphasis for Corporate Research Support is internal facing, working with faculty members that already have innovation projects, perhaps early stage but not at the contract stage.

“We help with ideation, value propositions, and early IP discussions,” says Fick. “Faculty are the source for our greatest partnerships.”

Excerpted from the February 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at