Industry-Sponsored Research Week

As the pandemic continues, virtual efforts don’t deter industry engagement professionals

By David Schwartz
Published: November 17th, 2020

A detailed article on how industry engagement professionals are adapting to the virtual environment and the status of in-person industry meetings appears in the November issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

In the pre-COVID era, if you had asked a university-industry engagement professional whether they would rather meet with their counterpart in person or virtually, the answer would not have been in doubt. That does not mean, however, that they are distraught over the impact of the pandemic on partnering activity, where they most often have no choice but to meet virtually.

The fact is that most university corporate engagement managers are relatively pleased both with the efficiency and the effectiveness of these meetings, and while they clearly miss getting together in person with their industry partners, there is no desperation to return to the “old normal.” Rather, while there is certainly a desire to return at some point in the future, ‘virtual’ clearly remains the norm. Most, however, will meet with partners on the rare occasions they’re asked, while applying all necessary safety precautions.

“We do some [in-person meetings] now,” says Crystal S. Leach, PhD, director of industry collaborations at the University of Georgia. “Researchers are back on campus, with social distancing. Some industry partners feel comfortable coming to campus in a controlled way, but it’s not nearly to the level we did before.”

She says her department tries to mediate those limitations through virtual lab tours, with a high-tech assist from a camera-quipped drone. “We have our students stand beside the experiment and physically walk through it,” she explains. “It’s like being here.”

“We try to avoid in-person meetings,” adds Michael Bloom, PhD, University of South Florida assistant vice president for corporate partnerships and innovation. “We have a very strict policy; my teams all work from home.” One exception, he notes, has been the possibility of a campus visit by a company from Phoenix that is considering relocation. “Those sorts of meetings can only be done in person, although socially distanced,” he notes.

“Everybody’s anxious to get back to meeting in person,” admits Amy Achter, managing director in the Office of Business Engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We’ve been home a long time, we miss seeing each other and the collaboration that comes with being in a shared space. We’d love to invite partners to campus, and they’d love to come, but everyone looks at it as [we’ll do it] when it’s right for everyone.”

“I think we’ve got this for at least another year; our look at the horizon extends to next summer,” asserts Chris Ostrander, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at the University of Utah. “Part of the reality in my mind is that the availability of a vaccine is a nice inflection point, but it will take us 18 months to get everyone dosed.”

It’s not that he and his team aren’t anxious to get back to in-person meetings, he continues. “Yes, we’re chomping at the bit — but we’re not going to,” he shares. “It would be a stretch for me to ask my team to meet with companies.”

Just like universities, companies come in all shapes, sizes and attitudes about COVID-19. In many cases, the university will follow the lead of their partners — while remaining true to their campus policies.

“We been able to pivot our strategy considerably; we can’t accept visitors, although we typically host 6,000 to 7,000 corporate visitors every year,” says Karl F. Koster, executive director of corporate relations and director of alliance management at MIT. So far, he continues, that hasn’t been a problem with industry partners. “We keep in touch with our corporate contacts regularly, and we haven’t yet gotten a push [to meet in person],” he states. “It’s not that compelling to want to go forward.”

Perhaps, he offers, that’s due to some of the engagement strategies his team has been pursuing. “We’ve tried to maintain strong remote content delivery through extensive webinars, two to four a week, often in partnership with different units at MIT,” he reports. “They highlight individual faculty work, and we’ve gotten a good reaction.” In fact, he says, some of the webinars have attracted over 1,200 attendees, and even more narrowly focused events draw 200 to 300 people.

“The webinars trigger and catalyze requests from industry for individual meetings with faculty,” says Koster. “Research directors organize those; we’ve even hosted some company-specific webinars when they have specific interest in a topic.”

“If a company wants to meet in person our standards still hold,” says Bloom. “We always wear a mask, keep a minimum six-foot distance, and we usually try to meet outside or in open or large areas like atria — but again, it’s highly discouraged. Most of the time our companies have been fine in terms of online meetings.”

At Georgia Leach says she has seen “huge variety and variability” among industry partners. “Fundamentally, [we ask] what is the industry partner’s comfort level?” she says. “The first thing we have to find out is how they manage their company functions. If they do nothing but work from home, that’s fine. If not, we have a conversation.”

In many cases, she continues, a hybrid solution is employed. “We may use a very large conference room, and instead of 12 people we have four, and we may bring some in remotely. If we have an industry visitor, they might meet with one or two faculty members or leaders, socially distanced, but we might then have a virtual event that they present to the students.”

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