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To build industry engagement, faculty relations should be front and center

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

There’s little doubt that faculty members are among of the most critical elements of creating successful U-I partnerships. So, how do corporate relations managers develop strong relationships with these key internal stakeholders, and how do they continue to strengthen them over the years? Leaders agree that effective communications — highlighted by continuous outreach and understanding of faculty challenges — are critical.

They also agree that without strong faculty relationships, it is virtually impossible for them to succeed at their jobs. “I think faculty is the most important factor,” says JoonHyung Cho, director of corporate relations and business development at the University of Virginia. “People assume that what I and my colleagues do is external, and while that’s true, we can’t do it without internal relationships — and the faculty is the center of that.” In some ways, he notes, “we value those relationships even more than the ones we have with companies.”

“It’s the key to everything that we do,” adds John C. Roberts, PhD, interim executive director for MIT Corporate Relations. “We’re completely reliant on faculty to want to engage with us; they have other options. We need to give them good reasons, good experience — the whole gamut. One way that things come to us is that faculty approaches us directly. If we do not do a great job, we won’t be positioned to help [industry].”

Keys to strong relationships

And what are some of the keys to developing those strong relationships? “They’re the same as with any relationship building,” asserts Joseph B. Havrilla, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh. “One is outreach — making a personal, face-to-face connection. That’s why it’s so important to get in front of them; that’s the number one. Number two, share information with faculty that’s of interest to them. Three, tell them very clearly how you can and will help them do their jobs. Then, be ready to follow up — don’t make promises you will not keep.” In other words, he explains, “tell them, ‘this is where we can help you, how we can help you navigate the process, and these are the benefits to you.’”

It’s absolutely critical, he adds, to manage expectations. “The last thing you want to do is lead a faculty member to a relationship where they have to do things that they were not aware of and that do not fit with how they want to work,” he cautions.

Outreach is also critical to Roberts’ game plan with faculty. In fact, he shares, “we’ve just finished a series of meetings with the heads of schools, which we had not done for years (thanks to COVID). That had weakened systematic outreach to faculty at certain stages and levels.” He began by meeting with the heads of schools, then gave assignments to the team to contact different labs and centers. Their charge is “to reach out on a quarterly basis [to discuss] what we’ve done together, and what we could be doing.” With a team of 30, his department also has assignments to individual departments and program directors.

For Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president for commercialization and director of UF Innovate at the University of Florida, another key to good relationships with faculty is hiring staff with the right skill sets. “That starts on my end with hiring people with soft skills,” he says. “You need some technical knowledge, the depth to hold your own with faculty, as well as business acumen, and the soft skills to interface effectively with faculty. If you’re a hard-nosed businessperson, you will not have the patience or the ability to stroke an ego; you will not be effective in the long term. I try my best to hire only people with industry experience…. You have a much better chance of getting someone who meets all the ‘pieces.’”

“We need to be a resource for [faculty],” adds Cho. “You hear about us being the front door for industry; sometimes we’re the front door for faculty when it comes to the university — knowing other people in compliance, in development. Many key faculty members I’ve spoken with say they like having one person they can ask those things. We also need to provide some more personalized services and listen to what their needs are.

“What faculty tell us — particularly those who engage with us a lot — is that we provide a window on global problems, new problems they may not have known existed or were important,” he continues. “Also, we provide ‘pressure-testing’ as to whether industry is ready for their ideas.”

From beginning to end

Corporate engagement managers agree that relationships with faculty begin when they first arrive on campus, and continue throughout their careers, although there are some differences as to exactly when that first approach should be made. “We reach out to faculty within a year of when they join to tell them who we are,” says Roberts. “We talk again when they get tenure, as well as during workshops or other opportunities to speak, but at least those two.

“We report back to all of the staff what we found, who we reached out to, what their research interests are, who they collaborate with,” Roberts continues. “We do the same thing for tenured faculty, reporting back [to staff].” He says these reports may be done on a semi-annual basis in staff meetings, although “during the pandemic we were slipping.”

“We’re in it for the long term,” he summarizes. “We look to build substantial relationships with faculty and lead administration people, as well as the executives at companies.”

“When it comes to new faculty, maybe someone who just moved from another institution, we talk about what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what companies or federal agencies they’re working with,” says Cho. “Second, we ask if they are interested in working with companies — identifying that early is good. If they’re not interested, it helps you triage, and you back off a little bit. If they’re interested but need help, that’s your sweet spot. You talk with them about the ways there are to work with companies and what it means. If you provide examples, they really respond well, particularly [if those examples involve] other faculty in the same department.” Those other faculty, he points out, can be advocates for industry engagement, as well as good resources for newer researchers on how to work with industry and how the office is able to assist them.

One key area, says Cho, is the vision of the faculty member. “When they are looking for a new partner, or to build an existing relationship, a lot of times it’s related to their vision in research,” he notes. “Without some relationship built between me and the team, sometimes they hesitate to share that vision — which is really important. That’s where we can talk a little bit more about the details, where we can think at a high level about what they need, where the company comes into it and what we need to make things happen — and even whether we’re sure the company is interested in realizing this vision together.

“Another side that’s very helpful is to make sure they know what we do and what we don’t do,” he continues, pointing out that faculty often hold a number of misconceptions about corporate relations. For example, he says, “faculty sometimes think that we do contract negotiations, that we have money ready to be given to them and/or their research, or that we have a magic wand to make all the compliance issues go away.”

It’s important, Cho notes, to clear those misconceptions up, as they could create conflict with other offices. “You have to very careful and clear about what it means to be a front door,” he emphasizes. “It does not mean we toss you to the next office, and we don’t make certain decisions. This is where a proactive education is a key for managing expectations of what we do and how we can add values,” he says.

“We have a ‘cradle to grave’ concept — from the beginning to the end,” says UF’s O’Connell. Accordingly, recognizing the faculty member’s attitude about corporate partnering is a key element in the relationship from day one, he notes. “Our outreach has grown to recognize that if we do faculty orientation we’ll give a little talk, but this is where these folks get slammed with all sorts of information,” he says. “Most junior faculty are worried about how to get a grant, as opposed to how to sell the proceeds of IP they get from that grant.”

That’s why it’s so important for outreach to continue on an ongoing basis, he says, from department meetings to grand rounds at the hospital — “or me talking to deans and trying to put some downward pressure on [their faculty] to engage,” he states. In addition, he says, social media outreach is also used, letting faculty know what the department is doing or sharing recent successes. The engagement team also likes to make the occasional small goodwill gestures, like buying pizza.

“We start at the same place with everyone, but what we wind up with is different based on experience,” adds Havrilla. “New faculty tend to be much more open; they do not have a history of challenging experiences.” On the other hand, he has been able to leverage the positive experiences of veteran faculty members. “In a recent presentation one faculty member [shared that they] had a very positive experience with an industry partnership,” he relates. “I tapped into them, saying, ‘Tell your colleagues what your take on that experience was.’”

Sometimes things go wrong

As with any business relationship, success in U-I collaborations is not guaranteed; negotiations fall apart, or somewhere down the road one or both partners realize things are just not working out. This can be a real test for the corporate relations executive, who may have to face a faculty member who has no interest in ever again working with industry.

“That’s a challenge,” Havrilla concedes. “Sometimes they will not get over it. You have to focus more on trying to find a much better fit, where the experience has a much higher probability to be positive.” Meanwhile, he says, he “continues to try to softly promote” another collaboration.

“We have a natural distance between the time we’re involved and the time a partnership fails,” notes Roberts. “But just today I talked with someone confronting this problem with a faculty member disillusioned by a previous experience; they just thought it was not worth engaging. We set up a meeting with colleagues and let him know how things work and what the possibilities are. They walked away much more excited.”

Here, too, he notes, managing the problem come down to communication. “Recently I’ve seen how easy it is to be perceived negatively when something goes wrong — not necessarily with our organization, but we’re one part of the mix,” he says. “We’re usually involved with four other organizations that do not have as much visibility, and if something goes bad all they remember is that corporate relations was involved. That’s why it’s important to define who we are, and what it is we don’t do in these contexts, even if it seems repetitive.”

“It’s hard,” Cho admits. “I’ve had unfortunate experiences where things do not work out,” with reactions varying depending on the stage at which the problems occur. “Early on, it could be shared vision [but] the company says they’re not interested,” he offers. “Sometimes you put a funding request together based on joint vison, but the company decides that’s not where it wants to go. Many faculty are accustomed to taking those rejections because that’s the way federal funds work. What’s hard is when things go on, and for various reasons the company pulls the plug in the middle; they say they’re not committed in year two out of five. In many ways faculty had already committed to doing X, Y, and Z.”

Cho says he’s had some success re-engaging those faculty, but he’s also had some who said they’d never work with industry again. “With those who still wanted to re-engage, we often had a lot of in-depth conversations about what worked, what was under our control, and what was not,” he says. “Sometimes, even though the collaboration was terminated because of funding, an ongoing relationship may still be available — at least for feedback. In those cases, faculty may be more likely to re-engage, because they take it less personally.”

O’Connell has an optimistic take. “I would suggest that for most of them, even if things do not work out, they see the value,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just the money flowing into the lab. If a company says they’re passing [on a proposed deal], but in the meantime they’ve funded a couple of grad students for a year or so, that exposure is the key piece. When our faculty see it, they get it. Once you have a drink, they will go back and next time around be a little more educated. It’s rare to see faculty engaged with industry with a modicum of success not wanting to engage more.”

He relates the story of a recent situation where the science was not working out, the company held off on some payments, goals were not met, and the faculty member “got all huffy.” O’Connell, who was personally involved in that situation, notes that “both sides wanted to make sure there was no ill will. I worked with the faculty, and the notion on both sides was it won’t work out this time, but it may next time. Sure, people get their feelings hurt, but you’ve got to be adults and say ‘It was just not the right time for this one.’”

Dos and Don’ts

Roberts is very clear on what you should avoid doing if you want to have a strong relationship with a faculty member — and what you should do. “Don’t fight with them; do not make anything that sounds like an excuse. Be all ears, and acknowledge their pain,” he advises. “Faculty are no different from anybody else — except that we completely depend on them.”

In other words, he continues, “listen, respond, and follow up. “We must be diplomatic about everything in corporate relations.”

“Expectations are the most important,” adds Cho. “Manage them so that the faculty knows what they could get from us when they work with a company — what they should expect. For example, when they work with us, they can keep and cultivate their science relationship, while at the same time cultivating a business relationship; that’s one way we add value. Also, make sure they are in the loop when you’re talking business, so we’re aligned internally, and no one is blind-sided.”

Havrilla agrees. “I think again the keys are making sure faculty understands what’s in it for them, for the university, and for the industry partner,” he says. “Relationships work when the expectations of both parties are understood and met. It’s important to make sure faculty understands that industry has different perspectives, wants, and needs, Our job is to leverage those differences in a positive way.”

Or, as Roberts summarizes, always make sure “we are the easiest and friendliest part of the bureaucracy.”

Contact Cho at 434-422-0731 (mobile) or joonhyung.cho@virginia.edu; Havrilla at 412-383-3773 or joseph.havrilla@pitt.edu; O’Connell at 352-392-8929 or jimoconnell@ufl.edu; and Roberts at 617-253-0412 or roberts5@mit.edu.