Industry-Sponsored Research Week

How to engage faculty in building university-industry partnerships


By David Schwartz
Published: July 14th, 2020

A detailed article on best practices for working collaboratively with faculty on industry partnerships appears in the June issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For complete subscription details, click here.

While clearly a critical part of any university-industry partnership, faculty researchers sometimes get short shrift in conversations about what makes these partnerships successful, with attention often focusing more globally on the university and its industry partner, and overarching strategies for sharing each other’s goals and meeting each other’s needs.

Perhaps it was at least partly in recognition of this reality that NACRO recently decided to host a webinar titled “Working with Faculty.” After all, many partnerships revolve around faculty involvement, or depend on it completely.

“A faculty member’s expertise is a critical component to a U-I partnership,” said webinar moderator Emily Kelton, assistant vice president of corporate and foundation relations at the Colorado School of Mines, who spoke with UIEA in a later interview. “The assumption is that the company needs this expertise or wants to be able to access students connected with the faculty member. If neither or these assumptions are fully true, a company may not tolerate working with a faculty member whose other constraints impact his or her ability to deliver as the company wants.”

“Without faculty there is no partnership period, good or bad,” adds Joonhyung Cho, director of business development in the UNC-Chapel Hill industry relations office. “They are the key ingredient.” 

Understanding just how time-constrained faculty are, the panel noted, is critical — both on campus and in industry. “As a tenured, research active faculty member I wear lots of hats,” said panelist Alexander Miller, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Time is a precious commodity,” Miller says. “On any given day, I might be teaching undergraduate or graduate courses, serving on departmental or university committees, and advising the nine graduate students, three postdocs, and two undergraduate students in my group. At times I also transform into a small business CEO, managing employees and research budgets for a portfolio of grants, or a salesperson writing compelling grants to support my group’s research. At any given time, I am writing about five articles to be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Finally, I have undertaken Safe Zone and Mental Health First Aid training so that I can be as supportive an advisor and member of the university community as possible. Considering all of these different roles, new activities — like a new interaction with industry — should be a manageable time commitment and should feel like a worthwhile time investment.”

“I’m still a faculty member, I conduct research, and I teach, although that is more limited,” shared Steven K. Michelson, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. “I have oversight of all faculty staff and students and oversee all the facilities. I typically meet weekly with each college leadership counsel. There are department leadership meetings, staff meetings weekly, and the faculty meets at least monthly.” He’s also involved with mentoring, hiring committees, interacting with student club officers, and assisting with grant proposals.

Michelson also spends about 10%-15% of his time on external outreach, which includes corporate partners and alumni. Mark Boeck, senior director of development-corporate relations at Iowa State, notes that this includes administration of the advisory council, visits to industry partners, hosting visitors, and providing tours of buildings and labs.

That workload is top of mind for Boeck, who fiercely protects his faculty members’ time. “When communicating with faculty and requesting an industry meeting, I want to identify the best faculty member, follow protocols within the organization, and hopefully not inundate them,” he told webinar participants. “I use the appropriate professional title, which shows respect, and concisely explain the purpose and potential outcomes. And I never assume they are as excited about this as I am; I frame it as an invite and try to make it easy for them. And I always say, ‘Thank you for considering the request.’”

“I prefer to be the first point of contact,” added Michelson. “I know who has the big workloads, and how much time they have. If I’m first in the department I can provide an overview, learn more about the company’s interests and needs, and see if more in-depth discussions are appropriate. I want protect the time of faculty members.”

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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