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University-Industry Engagement Week

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Engagement with small businesses: Plenty of opportunity but limited bandwidth

A detailed article on strategies for engaging and partnering with smaller companies appears in the March issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

It’s not that industry engagement executives have anything against working with smaller companies; in fact, the idea of working with these companies, including start-ups, can be the beginning of an exciting process as both the company and the partnership grow. But corporate engagement leaders admit they sometimes simply lack the time required to pursue these companies as much as they’d like.

“The biggest problem for all of us is how to make the best use of our time,” says Nathan K. Utz, vice president of Purdue’s Office of Industry Partnerships. In fact, he says, “we have this conversation every day and every week,” and he stresses that there is no shortage of opportunities, just a shortage of time and resources. “I absolutely think start-ups and small companies have a lot to offer universities — and the entire ecosystem — and we do engage at those levels — just not at the proactive level we do with the Fortune 500 companies that are obvious targets.”

“There are several layers to this landscape map,” adds Kelsey S. Evans, executive director for corporate relations at the University of Texas-Austin. “I would say on the whole we get philanthropic gifts, research, and student [support] from nearly 400 companies a year, and of that, only about 175 are under active management from development professionals — the Microsofts, the Googles, the Exxon Mobils,” she says. “That means an awful lot of companies’ interactions are probably single faculty members and a single member of the company — or a ‘niche’ connection. That’s great; we want and need that to be happening. There are only so many ways to feed the dragon, and you need all sources in. I love that we have more companies on our tally list than we are actively managing.”

Having said that, Evans continues, “we are also in the very fortunate position of tracking companies moving here after the pandemic, and we have close to 310 that have moved [to Austin] in the last handful of years. My team, and the university as a whole, are very cognizant of [the question] how do we create pathways in for these new companies, to engage our students, faculty, and their employees? In my dreams I’d love to have an advancement professional on my team dedicated to these new companies, big or small, and the small ones in particular deserve special attention.”

Working with such companies, she explains, “is like going to Vegas. All bets do not win, but if you engage and they grow, it has enormous potential for payoff on the back side.”

Leah Aschmann, director of corporate relations in the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Rice University, is on the same page. “The philosophy of how to manage these partnerships is one that should ideally be able to be applied to large companies, start-ups, whatever — but it’s a capacity issue of what you can really handle effectively,” she says. “Philosophically, they should all be the same.”

When corporate engagement offices do become involved with smaller firms, is their approach different than it is with their larger counterparts? “Inherently, yes,” says Evans. “The success I’ve seen with smaller companies is you start at the top — find out from the top level what the most important issues are.”

People at the senior level, she explains, “have great insights about what the company needs, and what its goals are for the next 12-18 months. In larger companies we have often started with a university relations designee or an alum and tend to work from the bottom up. With small companies, [you start at the top] then make a handoff. For me and the university, that has been an effective way to navigate into some of these smaller companies — we’re talking 500 or fewer employees.”

“Absolutely it’s a different ballgame,” adds Zachary Holman, associate professor and director of faculty entrepreneurship at Arizona State. “When you’re working with large companies, they have funds available, they usually need large workforces, research can be high up on their list; they care about a lot of different things from the university. They definitely spend quite a lot of time with redlines, going back and forth before everything [in an agreement] gets done. And it’s a challenge finding the right person in the company — the decision maker — and who in the organization needs to sing from the same song list.”

Start-ups and smaller companies, on the other hand, “are scrappy, understaffed, definitely underfunded and [present] very unique problems — ‘I’m looking for a piece of equipment that can do this;’ or ‘I need one person who has these skillsets.’ If you can fill that niche, there’s the possibility to move very quickly with few redlines. The negotiations can be so wonderfully simple. You need alignment with very few people.”

The challenge, notes Holman, is to be flexible when it comes to funding. “Maybe you have a conceptual alignment, but you apply for funding together; the office has to be flexible before the money comes in,” he offers. “They may want a one-year project paid in advance. Or, $150,000 may be a huge deal for a five-person start-up, but if the university is willing to accept quarterly payments, it may be possible to do. You have to understand the pain points and perspectives.” Despite these challenges, he says, “I love working with them.”

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