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University-Industry Engagement Advisor
Distinct roles and best practices emerge to nurture partnerships

Alliance management an integral part of successful industry engagement

This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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Convincing a potential industry partner that an initial collaboration is attractive is one thing; keeping that partner on board and strengthening that relationship as the years go on is quite another, and that’s where alliance management comes in — as more and more university corporate engagement offices have come to realize.

“My understanding, based on interviews with a lot of peers and benchmarking with other universities, and with my involvement with UIDP, is that alliance management as focused functions within universities is becoming more and more in vogue,” says Joseph Havrilla, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh, with overall responsibility for the Office of Economic Partnerships. “Specifically, universities interested in driving increased engagement with industry are moving more and more towards alliance management capability.”

Industry, he continues, is very comfortable with the concept — one of the main reasons, he says, that academia has moved more and more in that direction over the past 10 years.

“I would say that for us, alliance management is really our secret sauce,” adds Helen Montag, senior director for business development and corporate partnerships at Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures. “I’ve been doing this role about seven or eight years, and I learned quickly that getting the deal is one thing, but managing really well helps the faculty and industry partners. I want our partners to have a frictionless experience. It makes a big difference for the alliance managers on both sides when you can deal with a small problem before it becomes a huge problem.”

You don’t have to sell the concept to UCSF, which was one of the first universities to develop an alliance management group. “In 2010-2011 we received a mandate from senior leadership, which saw industry facing internal pipeline pressures,” shares Peter Kotsonis, director of UC San Francisco’s Innovation Ventures. Their message, he says, was “Let’s do more partnerships, find a way to get stuff out of our labs into clinicians’ hands and to patients.”

“I came out of industry,” notes Kotsonis, who says the challenge was building an office with alliance management best practices and a business mindset that matches the culture and practices of an industry partner, “so they don’t come to us and say, ‘Oh my God, this office is so different.’”

Goals and strategy

While universities have common goals when it comes to their alliance management efforts, the strategies and structures they’ve put in place to accomplish those goals differ.

“We want to have our industry partners see a mirror,” says Kotsonis. “Leadership gave us a mandate to get out and bring in research dollars. Don’t get so hung up on IP; seek fair market deals — make that deal fair in terms of financials, and shared incentives. Also, get a licensing revenue stream back to the professors.”

“We have three [main goals],” says Montag. “We’re always concerned about impact; we want to leverage research for its impact on the world. We’re always looking to procure more research in a particularly diversified revenue stream, and also translational work for patient care, getting high impact products on the market. We always keep top of mind the patient who’s waiting, and we’re trying to think what it is our folks do that can be translated into something helpful for them.”

“I want to build an alliance management capability within the university or establish better capability, where we are recognized as being excellent at managing relationships with external partners, be they industry or venture capital, or even economic development partners,” adds Havrilla. “To do that, you have to have an alliance management philosophy and capability.”

At Pitt, he continues, “we have developed and communicated an organizational structure that includes an alliance management function. We’re not at the point yet where, for a variety of reasons, we have been able to staff that function, but we’ve developed a strategy, communicated our intent, and designed an organizational structure.”

From a strategic perspective, he continues, there’s also the need to generate internal alignment and communicate with various stakeholders about the value alliance management brings. “What’s in this for them, for me?” he poses. “The bottom line is the mitigation of challenges and issues between parties and ensuring that the value expected from both parties in the partnership is achieved. Deliver on your value promise and mitigate issues, either ahead of time or in real-time management, so that over time things go more smoothly and wind up building more credibility internally and externally. That’s a valuable persona to have.”

Build alliance management structure

“Our team has grown,” Montag reports. “What we generally do is start with a senior director, then directors. They tend to focus on business development. The more junior assistant associates do a little bit of everything, and we encourage them to do a lot of alliance management. They help with the large deals to make sure we do everything we say we’re going to do.”

Hopkins has a set structure for larger deals which tend to have joint steering committees on both sides, with three members each, and alliance management on both sides. “The joint steering committees often meet quarterly,” says Montag. “They have a master collaborative agreement in place and individual project work orders.”

These projects develop first by an expression of interest by the industry partner in a specific area, say back of the eye diseases. “Then we say to faculty, what is the challenge, and what ideas do you have?” says Montag. “They present ideas, we select the best one, they become projects and are governed by the steering committee, with real milestones and real timelines.”

“We took a holistic approach to our group,” says Kotsonis. “Often there are multiple silos, or functions, on campus, [but no] continuity. One constant is the people; myself and my right-hand person have worked together 17-18 years. There is familiarity with the group, with what we deliver, and the best practices we deploy. That constancy is a godsend for us.”

New partnerships, he says, often come through business development. “We put a lot of understanding into what’s in our warehouse, what we could monetize. We do not wait for the faculty to come to us,” Kotsonis notes. “We hit the road. We partner up with thought leaders — chairs, department heads — trying to understand what is inside their shop and trying to mine that shop and find nuggets and opportunities.”

When collaborations are being pursued, a deal team and contracting group are formed. “Often we develop a framework, and they do the contract,” he says. “We do not just walk away; we’re in those deals. We are one continuous thread, from partnering up to living the alliance. It’s not like a deal is made and then handed over to the alliance management group. You live it; you may hit some bumps, but you try to stay involved in the negotiations, so it makes sense when it comes to time to live the thing.”

On the UCSF side, says Kotsonis, you will often see an individual who has an industry background — another aspect of the “mirroring” experience he wants to offer the industry partner. “We understand their culture, and drug discovery, what they’re looking for in terms of a project, and what the deficiencies can be,” he explains. “We understand the science, what they have done and what they’re doing. Then, when it comes to agreement development, what is their vision? How do you take it and make a contract livable and workable? We can have conversations with our counterparts, their thought leaders, and flesh out the vision — then translate it to a model you can lay an agreement over.”

Keeping it strong

Alliance management best practices, says Kotsonis, should be geared towards making and keeping partnerships strong. Part of that, he notes, is asking yourself some important questions, like these:

  • How do you launch an alliance and build governance?
  • How do you de-escalate if there’s a conflict?
  • How do you do a health check?
  • Is there trust between partners, and if not how do you repair it?
  • At the end, if you part ways, how do you make sure you meet post-deal obligations?

“You need to have a champion on both sides,” Kotsonis advises. “Have an alliance manager on both sides who will steer the partnership through the bumps.”

It’s also important to take a longer-term view of the partnership, he continues. “Establish clear communication lines and build trust. That does not come overnight,” he says. “Managers have to literally be on speed dial.”

When new alliances are formed, the UCSF group holds a “mission launch event” to flesh out not just the “what” but the “how” of what the partners are doing together, explains Kotsonis. “By the time we sign an agreement launch we try to identify projects we can work on. Until you get to signature, you have to be patient, but you need to be ready to tee up initiatives and projects — that gets you going.”

During the alliance, he continues, keep tabs on the functioning of the steering committee to ensure it’s working smoothly and cooperatively, and truly moving any projects forward, he recommends. “It’s the alliance managers’ job to make sure they are engaged,” says Kotsonis.

Be aware there will be bumps, he cautions; even setting up a cost center can be choppy. “Very operational things may be easy for the industry partner but difficult for the academic partner,” he observes.

Conduct check-ups

To keep partnerships strong, says Kotsonis, “we often do health checks — one or two a year.” The health check may involve a questionnaire, and/or an interview with key folks. “Look for elements of communication and trust; how is governance performing? Can we address issues in a timely manner? Do we perform in a timely manner?” he suggests, adding that you should quantify the results, using, perhaps, a 0-5 score for each question.

“You may see the partnership is now stagnant, or not really evolved,” he says. “Try to glean data from those questionnaires. Hopefully the alliance manager is in tune with the pulse of what’s going on. Hopefully, in years one, two, and three you will evolve the partnership. Are they getting what they expected? Are we meeting their needs?”

A key rule of “Alliance Management 101,” says Kotsonis, is that you are there to evolve the partnership. “Your original vision may not be relevant or competitive; you may need to change,” he notes. “Is the partner seeing ROI? How do they see it within their organization? Manage both sides; you do not want to lose interest at the first bump.”

Attention to detail

Montag recommends a high level of organization and attention to detail, making sure to address small problems before they become big problems. “I tend to do best with team members who are technically trained with superb interpersonal skills,” she says. “They deal with the customer and with the faculty.”

Havrilla also places high value on the skill sets of team members. He looks for someone who is “incredible” when it comes to interpersonal skills, including written communication, patience, and temperament — not too aggressive or high strung, but not low strung, either. He also looks for a certain level of domain knowledge. “If I’m representing the university on health science topics, I do not need to be a scientist, but I have to have a general understanding of the domain and what’s important,” he says. Other skills he looks for in alliance management staff include the ability to negotiate, to “tease out interests from both parties, to be able to come up with credible solutions in a non-confrontational manner, to deal with difficult people, and the ability to build consensus.

“Imagine the value if you have someone like that managing the relationship between two parties — the positive impact that’s going to have,” he continues. “It’s my experience that within some organizations the need for alliance management — the recognition of that need — is borne out of a significant partnership issue; something goes wrong.”

An alliance manager, says Havrilla, “is a facilitator at the highest level — the facilitator of progress between two parties. Second, they are the mediator of conflict between two parties. Then, there is judgment and decision making — when do I get involved?” Alliance managers must “be an advocate for the university with the industry partner, and an advocate for the industry partner with the university,” he adds. “They’ve got to be able to explain why certain procedures and processes that we hold dear are going to be such a problem for the industry partner, and why we may need to be more flexible.”

Two-way communication

A critical factor in effiective alliance management, Havrilla stresses, is understanding the interests and expectations of both your partner and your university, and how they align and don’t align.

“Understand the value proposition for the partnership; that’s an essential best practice,” he says. Another key practice is “establishing a point-to-point communication between parties at different levels. For example, in an industry-academic [partnership] setting, you have a research scientist on the university and industry side; they need to talk to each other, and they don’t need to talk with an alliance manager. At the same time, alliance managers have to have point-to-point communications with their peer on the other side of the partnership. All relevant critical communication paths have to be identified and clearly understood by both parties. For example: what is the communication path if the scientific group on one side has a question for the other side? How does it get answered? Who’s responsible?”

Another key principle, says Havrilla, is having clear, identified decision making processes “and frequently touch base with the partner to make sure we’re staying in lockstep on what’s going on between the parties.”

When conflicts do arise, he advises, make things as non-personal as possible. “Any conflict has energy from both sides,” Havrilla notes. “You need to take the energy out and focus on facts and resolution — not ‘he said, she said’ kinds of debates.”

Shifting gears

Regardless of how well developed their alliance management programs are, corporate engagement professionals have had to shift gears this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The focus has really changed this year; you have to listen to your partners,” says Montag. “It’s forced us all to work from home, work on Zoom; you need to have a lot of communications, meet very regularly so no one feels cut off.

“Listening,” she continues, “is always important. Listen to your partners, listen to your faculty, listen to the environment. With COVID, we’ve had a lot of faculty working on COVID-related projects. You have to go where the work is getting done.”

“A lot of our work is hitting the pavement, like going to BIO,” adds Kotsonis. “These things are now virtual; we’re not going to meetings, mixing and mingling. That has suffered a bit, but we’re doing some on Zoom time. You still can engage in setting up roundtables, focusing on negotiations.”

‘Face-to-face’ relationship building, he concedes, is not easy over Zoom. “It’s not optimal, but it’s still working, and we’ve had a fairly successful year,” he summarizes. What’s more, he adds, “we’ve seen a burst of COVID-type disclosures.”

“It’s impacted us in two ways,” says Havrilla. “Alliance management is all about relationships, and historically you have partners from two organizations getting together. Typically, industry comes to the university, you have meetings, go to dinner, talk about personal things — even build friendships, upon which challenges become easier to deal with. People do not impose inappropriate challenges on people they know. It’s very difficult to establish that without getting face to face. What we’re trying to do is start virtual meetings with a roundtable discussion … so you start to establish that same level of personal bond that you can then rely on in times of difficulty.”

The other challenge, he says, “is just mastering the new communication vehicles like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Different companies use different platforms, so the alliance manager at the university has to be conversant in many technologies.”

This includes being able to address some of those platforms’ weaknesses. “Zoom is pretty good,” he says, “but virtual is difficult in larger group meetings. You almost need to have an assigned moderator — someone who will watch chats, who raises their hand, to organize the meeting.”

The bottom line, says Kotsonis, is that “it’s worked. Steering committees and alliance managers talk to each other; those talks are still going on as usual. There are incentives [for things to work] on the industry side, and incentives on the campus side.”

And the interest in alliance management on the part of universities has not waned, Havrilla adds. “There are universities that now have a policy where they won’t engage in a partnership if they do not have an alliance manager assigned to the program and included in the budget between the parties,” he says.

Contact Havrilla at 412-383-4819 or; Kotsonis at 415-323-3108 or or; and Montag at 410-371-8776 or

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