Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Communication is key when COVID-19 stalls partnership projects


By David Schwartz
Published: June 23rd, 2020

A detailed article on how industry engagement professionals are dealing with disruptions and delays in industry-sponsored projects appears in the June issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription details, click here.

While stalled research projects are eventualities that neither university nor industry partners like to see, in many cases they have been inevitable due to COVID-19 safety concerns. While there is no “guidebook” on how best to deal with these unforeseen challenges, most observers agree the first consideration should be quick and transparent communications between partners.

“The best advice — a best practice — is communicating,” asserts Peter K. Dorhout, PhD, vice president for research and professor of chemistry at Kansas State University. “Pick up the phone or e-mail and find out what the expectations are.”

Many industry partners have been impacted just as much as universities, he notes, so there is at least a level of understanding between the two. “The key is whether you’re able to talk about the fact that ‘Okay, our Governor has a stay-at-home order, we’re really not in position to be able to go to our labs, but here’s what we can do in the meantime; we can process data we’ve been waiting to finish up a few more experiments to complete. That will give you some inkling as to what’s going on.’ It’s just providing some alternative solutions to get them what they would like, or at least say, ‘this is what we’re hearing from the university.’”

For example, he shares, Kansas State has “started slowly opening,” and industry partners can be looped in on exactly what that means in terms of their projects and likely timelines for further easing of restrictions. This open communication, he adds, should also include principal investigators.

Crystal S. Leach, PhD, director of industry collaborations and professor in the University of Georgia College of Engineering, agrees. “No matter what, a best practice is enhanced communications,” she says. “Talk to them, tell them where you are with the projects. Honesty is what you should expect from both sides.”

Her office, she continues, has tried to be really proactive — especially with larger strategic partners. “We review the portfolio, what it looks like,” she says. “Not all projects have the same challenges.”

In addition, she says, partners need to agree they’re both in it for the long haul. “There just may be some things that can’t continue because the company is not in a financial position to,” Leach offers. “If we all realize we’re not in it for this project but for a long-term relationship, we have to wrap our brains around things as partners: How do we get through this so we can still do projects on the other side?”

In terms of specifics, when it comes to financing Dorhout says there are certain variables to consider. “A lot depends on whether they’ve pushed all their chips forward and said, ‘Here’s the money, go do a project,’ or whether payments come over schedules,” he notes. “We’ve done things like asking to delay payment schedules by a couple of months or considering certain reductions in materials and supplies to focus on personnel. Obviously, we all want to keep everyone employed and paid. Given that we sometimes work with grad students or postdoc staff members, we found ourselves in mid-semester and you can’t just stop paying them.”

So with industry partners, he continues, the university has requested the flexibility to shift dollars from one place to another to keep people employed or trying to catch up those projects that had been dormant during the shutdown.

And how have the partners responded? “It’s been pretty positive,” says Dorhout. “Some of them have worked very closely with us; they recognize the value in the relationship and have said, ‘Yeah, let’s figure out a way to get some work done — maybe push it off to summer and perhaps re-set some of the milestones and rearrange progress reports.’”

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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