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University-Industry Engagement Advisor
Collaborating across departments a key strategy

A year after launch, U Kentucky’s Innovation Connect making solid progress

This article appeared in the March 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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On April 11, UK Innovation Connect will host the inaugural Kentucky Innovator Challenge in Lexington, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the industry engagement program. The University of Kentucky division is marking the anniversary by holding an event that doesn’t just celebrate the milestone, but doubles as another touchpoint for corporate partners.

“We’ve invited executives from across the region to cast their vision for the future of their respective businesses, to showcase their challenges that are best overcome through collaborations, and to be specific about how our audience can get involved,” says Landon Borders, executive director of UK Innovation Connect (UKIC), UK Innovate’s industry partnership program.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of interest from our faculty and staff here at UK, but also from our other industry partners, federal funding agencies, and policy makers. This will be a great event for Kentucky, and just one example of how we’re getting creative in building partnerships,” says Borders.

To date, big hitters including the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (ARPA) energy division, EchoFibre, PPL, GE Aerospace, Bullard, MI2 Innovation, the National Science Foundation, Toyota, Lexmark, Gray Solutions, Houchens Industries, Logan Aluminum, Holley, and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, among others, have signed on as participants under the agenda headings of manufacturing, sustainability, energy, aerospace, metals innovation, materials and logistics. The event’s marquee partner is national intellectual property law firm Dinsmore.

What a difference a year makes

A year ago when the Innovation Connect program had just launched, Borders told UIEA that UKIC “was created to provide dedicated resources to support partnerships focused mainly on research and innovation and economic development for the region.” It represented the university’s intention to focus a dedicated team and resources on expanding corporate collaborations.

Now, he says, “one pleasant surprise in this last year has been how our office often serves as a ‘connecting fabric’ across campus. We find ourselves making introductions between our innovators across different departments on our own campus that have similar research thrusts.”

The first several months were spent in meeting and getting to know the “ecosystem,” as he puts it, of research and development throughout the University of Kentucky’s region.

In line with the school’s mission as a land grant institution, Borders continues to focus on UKIC’s role as a service provider for Kentucky. As he told UIEA last year, “one of those services is coming up with great ideas and commercializing them. That will require a lot of collaboration and inspiration.”

Armed with a background in electrical engineering and 20 years of experience in development with large commercial interests, Borders and his team envisioned a year of expansion. What they found was a constellation of talented innovators — and a potentially discouraging fact: that Kentucky ranks in the bottom 20th percentile in most industry R&D metrics.

Yet Borders viewed that statistic in a decidedly “glass half full” way. “I see this as a great opportunity,” he says. “However, to make significant advances in industry R&D in our state requires a tremendous amount of collaboration at UK and with other colleges, universities, industries, state and local governments, start-ups, nonprofits, and community partners in our region. We’re willing to put in the time and effort to make this happen because I’m especially passionate about this aspect of what we do — so much in fact that we’ve prioritized [improving those rankings] as one of our top long-term goals for UK Innovation Connect.”

At UKIC’s inception, Borders predicted that his ability to speak the “languages” of both academia and industry would be crucial to the program’s success. Has he, and the UKIC team, been able to bridge the gap between those two worlds?

Borders says the gratitude and excitement of the new industry stakeholders signing on to become UK Research partners leads him to believe they have.

“To be honest, I expected more “no thanks” or “this is not for me” while introducing ourselves and explaining our services to our faculty and partners, but that’s not been the case,” he says. “In most cases the help is welcomed, and in short order we find ourselves piloting a new project.”

What UKIC has learned

Most of UKIC’s energy since last April has been aimed at building the UKIC team to support Kentucky’s most active research departments — which means tailoring the team to meet each of the departments’ unique priorities. For example, some departments need support with industry recruiting and coalition building, while others need support in creating processes to make it easier to work with the university.

“Our faculty members have tremendous responsibility and workload, so this is where we can step in and help,” says Borders.

What has the UKIC team learned in just 12 months? “We’ve learned just how important it is to work with other industry-facing units across campus to provide for a more holistic experience for our industry partners.”

Borders has been collaborating with colleagues in four areas: business engagement, philanthropy, career services, and economic development. The goal, he says, is to “provide a more holistic onboarding experience for new strategic partners to the UK ecosystem.”

As a result, UKIC has seen “more robust programmatic grant proposals; especially those that prioritize transdisciplinary collaboration and industry partnerships.”

To boost the number of grant proposals UKIC can support, the team partners with the university’s proposal development office to track all federal solicitations from NSF, NIH, ARPA-E and EDA.

“Then, we take a proactive approach by bringing them forward to our researchers and industry partners where we think there is a good fit,” says Borders. “To do that effectively, we strive to deeply understand both our industry partners’ needs and our faculty members’ expertise, capacity and interests.”

Project-scoping templates

Like all commercialization channels, UK Innovation Connect relies on contracts. Drawing on his experience outside academia, Borders has crafted some new mechanisms to make the university-contractor relationship more hassle-free.

“For example, we’ve created project-scoping templates that aim to walk our innovators through project proposals. We are doing this in a format that looks familiar to our industry partners and puts the value proposition to both parties, front-and-center, while clarifying which problems we aim to solve.”

Additionally, the templates are put together in a way “that can be easily converted into MOUs that incorporate as much detail as possible for our contracting experts,” he says.

“We’re excited about our approach and look forward to sharing more about this once we launch our program in the coming months,” says Borders.

Contact Borders at 859-562-0189 or

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