Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Universities, industry partners create new paths to success in the COVID era


By David Schwartz
Published: September 15th, 2020

A detailed article examining the range of experiences and strategies for maintaining industry relationships during the pandemic appears in the September issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor.  For subscription information, click here.

There is no book for university-industry engagement response during a pandemic. Leaders on both sides of the partnership equation were forced to pivot quickly into a new reality, focusing not only on the continuity of their operations on campus, but also on maintaining and, if possible, strengthening existing relationships.

Now, more than six months into the “COVID era,” it’s safe to say that many of them feel they are successfully weathering the storm. Not only has there been an increased demand from industry partners for help in COVID-specific research, but communications — with the help of virtual technology — have been steady and effective, and many feel their relationships have actually gotten stronger. In addition, flexibility and critical thinking have led to some new approaches and attitudes which, while designed specifically to address the current reality, will in many cases lead to long-term process improvement.

“Industry partners have definitely reached out to us for specific COVID activities, and every university has its own ‘flavor’ based on faculty,” says Lorena McLaren, who leads corporate and foundation relations at NC State. “Many large private foundations are publishing new calls for proposals.” Specific business areas of expertise are also being emphasized, she notes. For example, she points out, “we have the only college of textiles in the country, so [our] masks and materials are being used.”

“It was reassuring here on the university side to hear companies talk about how important these relationships are,” adds Jessica Watts, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at the University of North Texas. Watts was referring specifically to comments that came out of a recent NACRO webinar –“Adjusting to the New Normal: University-Corporate Relations in the Changing Landscape” — where several of the discussion leaders were from the corporate side.

“If it was not about relationships and finding the right fit, why would any of us have a job?” Watts poses. “An industry partner could just say, ‘Hey, we want “blank,”’ and we could say we have it or we don’t, and it costs this much, and the partner could say yes or no. We continue these relationships because, virtual or not, the companies want to hear from us that this is continuing. They want to get back on campus; they like going to campus. I feared that with virtual they’d say why bother, but I’m hearing they can’t wait to get back.”

“Surprisingly things are busier than they ever have been with the office, which is great for all of us,” says Sean Evans, a director on Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ (JHTV) corporate partnerships team. “There has been a focus on COVID, but with that said there are still a number of other non-COVID-related research collaborations ongoing, as well as discussions [for additional collaborations].”

“I would say that in some ways COVID made managing existing relationships a little easier to maintain because we have captive audiences in a sense — people are at home, and more able to focus on what they’re working on,” adds Seth Zonies, director of business development for Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. “You can keep engagement between the business director, faculty, and grad students more focused on existing work.”

When it comes to the talent pipeline, the message is pretty much the same. “We’re settling into this routine,” says Nicole Van Den Heuvel, executive director of the Rice University Center for Career Development (CCD). “The first thing we did was a big outreach to students. We did a webinar so they could see what was going on in the CCD and just kind of allay concerns. Of course, we did not know what to do, either, but we really wanted to connect with students immediately.”

Her team pivoted pretty quickly, she shares, and “in a thoughtful way.” Having a centralized office, she says, is a definite benefit. “We have a great team, and we are a one-stop shop for students and also for employers, so we’re able to control the messaging for both.”

Universities have implemented myriad changes — some large, some small, over the past several months in response to the crisis. “Since the end of March, I’ve jumped into the COVID activities for the university, and in particular have led all the implementation teams because we need to focus on building things, bringing innovation to the table and, clearly, collaboration,” says David A. Broecker, chief innovation and collaboration officer at the Purdue Research Foundation.

“We’re now doing a lot of virtual partnering conferences to see where the under-met needs and gaps are, and to shape potential relationships with faculty members and the research they have interest in,” adds Evans. “We’re helping to facilitate research contracts and [afterwards] help in certain cases where there is a need to manage the relationship.” Evans says he foresees increased emphasis on such alliance management services.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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