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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.”

The nitty-gritty

How do these different models function on a day-to-day basis? “For my team, we do the majority of our work through opportunities tracking,” says UCSD’s Noghera. “We also keep a critical line of sight noting the time it takes from the beginning conversation to a particular deal. This helps generate some insights about what it takes to close on a deal with a particular company or entity we work with. Because our office — and my team, in particular — are so heavily focused on also providing program management of our activities (for example, the corporate affiliates program, or research centers of excellence, for which team members are assigned to help faculty program manage and execute the offerings), a lot of our time is cyclical. A lot of it is focused on renewal of activity and increasing that activity with partners mutually invested in the school.”

Stewarding existing partners, he continues, “requires a lower dollar investment in terms of the amount of time or actions we take; we definitely spend more time on existing partners than on someone who has no relationship with the university.”

Out of his team of 10 at UW, “three of us have been dedicated to corporate relations, but in terms of running the portfolio about half of us are involved,” Grant says. “We went through a whole exercise to establish a priority order of companies; then each year we’d go through a process to promote certain candidates and take out some we were not successful with. In that sense, the pipeline was fairly organic.”

About three years ago, however, this structure evolved to the more formalized process that exists today, with Tamara LaFrance, Senior Director for Corporate and Foundation Engagement, the one individual responsible for recruiting new industry partners. She identifies candidates, talks with other people to help them identify candidates, and then considers what the potential of a partnership might be, Grant explains. Then, based upon her discussions, she determines where the best stewardship for that company would be.

“At the same time, she establishes the relationship, acting as an ‘ambassador,’” Grant continues, “pointing out [engagement options] they might consider, and who they should talk to. By the time she’s ready to hand over her set of contacts, there’s a context for discussion and some key indicators that this is a company that’s worth something.”

New opportunities

Why did he feel the need to have a single individual focused on industry partner recruitment? “We have a lot of big companies [already partnering] here, and yet as with most universities, other opportunities present themselves,” Grant explains. “Ideally, they would go through landscape analysis, but stuff happens. We wanted somebody to look after them — someone who is involved with corporate engagement and knows what it is.” LaFrance, he adds, not only has a lot of experience in corporate sponsorship, but also has many industry relationships as well.

At Rice, with the Presidential Partners program, the majority of efforts are spent with established partners “to grow those relationships, assure touchpoints, and make sure follow-ups are happening,” says Aschmann. A large percentage of the new industry partnerships come through faculty relationships — especially since things have gone virtual — as well as through alumni who have been promoted to highly placed positions in their companies and want to re-engage with Rice.

“While we ourselves do not recruit much, a lot of our campus colleagues are doing a lot of that — which they should be,” she continues. “As those happen, we’re often called in to help those conversations, and to offer other points of contact within the university; that’s where our expertise comes in.”

In addition, she points out, her office has regular meetings with deans and provosts, and development officers based in each of the schools “make sure we’re in communication and know what’s happening as best we can,” says Aschmann.

“As it stands now,” she continues, “whenever we learn of a new company, or when one contacts us directly — and we’ve been very fortunate to receive a handful of those — my colleagues and I will look at what’s going on, and who can take it.”

“At the end of the day alliance management works for the university and serves the faculty,” adds Fick. “At a minimum, we maintain those relationships. Being involved at the early ideation of each project with faculty involved under the terms of a master agreement, [with] IP, and so on, we can actively impact progress. On the sponsor’s end, things come up once research actually starts, and our individuals have that ability to anticipate challenges before they may come up. It really brings both sides together, making sure we understand where the partner is coming from, aligning our goals, and being able to troubleshoot. People who are masterful at the human level understand what drives the different sides and are able to smooth over blips before they become forest fires.”

“There is a reason why companies are existing partners,” adds Cho. “You need to understand why, and if there is a way to expand. In addition, sometimes existing partners provide unique best practices you can apply to new partners.”

What about the concept of having certain staff focus on new partnerships, and others on existing ones? “I think that’s a tough question to generalize,” says Cho. “It depends on peoples’ skillsets and interests; some like to work and grow existing partnership over recruiting new ones. My experience with staff that I used to have was that you certainly look for specific traits — who would have a more business development mindset. But what is important is that you need to understand what we can offer and be able to talk to the company. I can see the emphasis on recruiting new companies, but more as a team; it has to be balanced. If the existing team can’t follow up, it doesn’t mean much.”

Time will tell . . .

Since in some cases these universities are implementing new models, it may be too soon to tell how effective their approaches will be. “There aren’t any other institutions that we’re aware of who are doing this exact same model,” says Fick. “Two universities we looked at and that were very influential are Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, which have an overall faculty service mentality and pulled corporate engagement under research.” The U-M approach, he says, “is a variation on that theme.”

While the ultimate effectiveness “remains to be seen,” he notes that “we’re already busy. Once we start promoting as available these services for faculty, a lot remains to be determined. We’re still exploring at this point.”

Grant, however, is already bullish on his new structure at UW, saying it has worked out very well. “Even though it resides in our team, we also have people in various units doing similar things,” he notes. “After Tamara does an assessment, she’ll talk to the unit she feels is the best fit.”

Should other universities consider something similar? Only, Grant says, if they have sufficient size and bandwidth. “We have a big advantage,” he notes. “If you sit out in our engineering or medicine unit, companies will come knocking on your door. You also have companies knock on your PIs’ doors. For a smaller shop, I would not put a formal position in place; I’d probably look at some best practices and take the parts that work for you.”

“My own personal opinion, coming out of pandemic times for some colleagues across the country, I think our investment in stewarding has definitely helped us to maintain this good growth, because those relationships have grown into additional new business,” adds Noghera. “But coming out of the pandemic, I think it is the goal of every university to be more recognized globally and by their peer universities; everything we do is enhanced by our reputation.”

For Cho, although he has generally emphasized alliance management in favor of recruitment, it is not an “either-or” question. “It should never be,” he insists. “[The question should be]: How do we grow in a sustainable way with limited resources — not dividing them.”

Even when you are focusing on existing relationships, he adds, “that does not mean just cruising along with something comfortable; it’s thinking about understanding the partnership [and leading it] to growth mode. At that point, you can apply those principles to the new partnerships.”

Contact Aschmann at 713-348-4361 or leah.aschmann@rice.edu; Cho at 434-422-0731 or joonhyung.cho@virginia.edu; Fick at 734-763-0614 or cafick@umich.edu; Noghera at cnoghera@eng.ucsd.edu; and Grant at 206-543-2072 or tgrant7@uw.edu.

Posted Feb. 11, 2022