Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Transactional to strategic engagement: When is the time right to make the transition?


By David Schwartz
Published: February 23rd, 2021

A detailed article on making the transition from transactional to strategic engagement appears in the February issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

Corporate engagement conversations these days are rife with terms like “holistic engagement,” and “strategic partnerships.” Long-term partnerships involving deep engagement with industry partners in multiple areas of collaboration are greatly desired, but as the ancient Chinese proverb says, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” So, how does a relationship grow from that first step into something more? How does the university know when the time to make such a move is right, and how do they approach their industry partner?

“For us, it is a bilateral investment in each other’s brands — core business, or core mission. There has to be a high degree of overlap,” adds Joseph Huang, PhD, executive director, Business Engagement Catalyst (Corporate-University Relations) in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “In a truly strategic relationship, executives at ASU can easily contact executives at the company; they have reciprocal conversations as peers to build strategies.”
“I would say I don’t really think of it in the context of transitioning, as much as approaching the relationship first so that the transaction lives inherently within the scope of a relationship that hopefully has begun to develop by the time you approach a transaction,” shares Keith Marmer, chief innovation and economic engagement officer at the University of Utah. “Obviously, it sometimes does not work out that way, but you cultivate the relationship in parallel with trying to manage the transaction.”

Effectively managing an existing relationship is one of the keys to getting to that transition point, says Joonhyung Cho, director of business development in the Industry Relations Office at UNC Chapel Hill. “Make sure that it’s right at your touchpoints,” he offers. “You have agreements, which can be as simple as MOUs or as detailed as a partnership agreement, especially on the research side. If there are detailed milestones, make sure you meet them.”

At the end of the day, he notes, we sometimes “do not know what we do not know” until you and an industry partner actually work together. “Everything can look perfect on paper, but once you do things there can be such difficulties — say, if there’s not a cultural fit.”

There’s also the issue of “selling” the partnership to management. “In a lot of relationships with internal stakeholders, they may not be my bosses but my internal clients,” he explains. “I have to make sure they feel the same as I do.”

Patience is also required, he continues. “It’s inevitable that one collaboration can just be a failure, but it may not be the fault of a person, but rather timing,” Cho offers. “I have to understand why it’s happening. As always, anything can happen once; you have to make sure you do not repeat it again. Then, it becomes a systematic issue.” Quite often, he says, it could be a change of leadership at company, or a major M&A event that changes priorities. Changes like these, he notes, “could have a major impact — including trust.”

“In the early going, the key is seeking a shared understanding of what we can accomplish together now,” says Marmer. “You hear phrases like ‘quick win,’ or ‘start small.’ They are all fair, but we’ve also entered into initial relationships that have been larger in scope and scale out of the gate because the partner aspired to a larger goal, and we were likewise interested in trying to do that.

“Clearly, the progression of a relationship to the time when both parties look for larger opportunities will vary,” he continues. “Sometimes the prior project informs the next. It can be one party or the other saying, ‘We’re working on this, but how about that?’ If you take a relationship-based mindset, you can be in a conversation with a partner and in a bit of serendipity one may mention they’re exploring this or that, which leads into ‘I didn’t know that — did you know we also do that? Would you be interested in exploring it?’”

The deeper the relationship, the more you want to pursue, says Marmer. “It can span a few areas in no particular order,” he observes. “Are we creating value that we both benefit from? That can be defined in many different ways. Sponsored research will benefit a lab, and that’s great, but if the partner is not getting anything in IP, that’s a tough ask. Another important factor is, how easy are we to work with, and how easy is your partner to work with?”

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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