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University-Industry Engagement Advisor
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To market more effectively to industry, go beyond the portal

This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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It wasn’t too long ago that website portals listing all the technologies and resources available at a research university represented a leading-edge marketing option for letting existing and potential industry partners know the opportunities available to them. More recently, however, some corporate engagement professionals have recognized that a more targeted approach might be needed — or at the very least provide a valuable add-on to existing efforts.

“For very large institutions like ours and others, there’s no way we can keep updated on a portal; that’s the biggest challenge,” says JoonHyung Cho, director of corporate relations and business development at the University of Virginia. “You can [compile] it once, but without third-party resources or a dedicated unit on campus, that’s the biggest challenge. It might be more feasible for a smaller institution or specialized centers, but with several thousand faculty it’s simply impossible to know who does what” and keep a portal continually refreshed. Portals can be very helpful, he adds, “but they have increasingly become more for internal use than external use.”

In many cases, Cho says, “portals were created to satisfy internal criticism — that you were not marketing enough. We can show that we at least built this; we can’t guarantee someone will use it, but it’s there.” In his view, it’s preferable to listen to industry partners share their challenges and engage in a market pull approach, rather than relying on the relatively passive market push of a portal.

“We have a portal of available technologies and research; some people use it, but I tend to agree with that assessment,” adds Michael Psarouthakis, director of ventures and managing director of the Accelerate Blue Fund at the University of Michigan. To reach prospects in a more targeted way, he has worked with innovation management platform Wellspring to curate start-ups. The UM Startup Pipeline report is shared with 700+ investors, including strategic corporations, around the world quarterly. (See Figure 1. UIEA readers who wish to access the report can go to https://tinyurl.com/yckzywd2.) While not geared specifically toward industry engagement, the concept could be applied to research and technologies as well as start-ups.

The University of Pittsburgh has gone even farther, creating a curated “top tech” list using Salesforce and sharing it quarterly with about 100 industry partners and over 75 investors. This “Opportunity Report” highlights “our top ‘X’ number of things we’re most excited about,” says Joseph B. Havrilla, MBA, Pitt’s associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship. Actually, he shares, “we modeled the concept somewhat after the University of Michigan model.”

As part of the process that led to the Pitt program, industry partners were approached for their feedback. “We also have a portal,” says Havrilla, “but one of the things we found from talking with partners is they don’t use it. With 3,000 technologies, they’re not prioritized in importance; [portals] are typically not the best engines to search and really understand the technology — and just not worth their effort. We heard that, so we decided to develop about 100 targets — which we think is what industry and VCs are looking for today.”

Developing the program

The architect behind the Pitt program, says Havrilla, is Scott Morley, MBA, director of the Office of Industry & Economic Partnerships, who leads the industry partnership team. “He was the impetus behind and architect of our IT approach to deal with industry and other partners, and specifically Salesforce,” Havrilla adds.

Shortly after he joined Pitt, with a mission of doubling industry engagement within five years, Havrilla and an internal team, including Morley, embarked on a benchmarking and improvement process “to understand what we do, what other university peers do, what best-in-class approaches were, and what gaps there were. We also talked with industry to find out what they wanted.”

Through that process, they defined about two dozen or more initiatives. “One of the more substantive that we wanted to take on was a databased approach” to marketing, says Havrilla. “It was from the perspective of, ‘Let’s understand at a detailed level what specific industries look for in terms of scientific research.’ At the same time, we undertook to [better communicate] what we have to offer as a university.”

As a “novice” at Pitt, Havrilla did not yet know its strengths, or where to focus its more targeted outreach to industry. “Scott had a pretty good handle on medical devices, but [we approach it] from broader life science, where we were perceived to be strong, with leading research. We started pooling all that together, using Scott’s implementation of Salesforce as a database. We started to collect industry patents, contact corporate relations management — who deals with what industry partners at what levels, and who contacts them — and systematize all the information. I’d characterize it as the very nascent stages of getting to an automated system.”

Salesforce, says Morley, “is classically a CRM system used by many companies to track their business development and sales efforts and to manage marketing campaigns — customer relationships beginning to end. For us, we had to basically implement Salesforce for tracking accounts, points of contact, and opportunities related to sponsored research. I realized as I got involved that there was a lot of potential in utilizing Salesforce to further enable business development efforts.”

Everything they needed to bring into the Salesforce platform was then integrated with Pitt’s tech transfer IP management system — a platform from Knowledge Sharing Systems (KSS) that’s similar to Wellspring’s. “When I fire up a new opportunity in Salesforce I can link it to a technology — or technologies — that come from the KSS IP management system,” says Morley. “The benefit it provides us is that we can develop in our system these 360-degree views from a technology standpoint. I can go to a company, see all their existing licenses, open opportunities we have with them, opportunities lost, and ones we’ve closed. This perspective enables a much smarter conversation with partners. It is well curated to facilitate [offering] the right technologies to the right partners. We can go in and search the database and see technologies in certain fields we might want to present to the partner.”

An updated version of the system was launched last fall.

Targeting start-up funders

Psarouthakis says the UM Startup Pipeline has been around for about six years. Why did he feel a program like this was necessary? “We launch 20-30 start-ups a year, which puts us in the top three in the country,” he says. “A big challenge is early-stage funding, so we thought we’d share our pipeline research projects as well as start-ups as a way to communicate with investment and corporate venture partners we’ve met — to make them aware of our pipeline and actively raise investment capital.” He notes that it takes 18 months to two years longer to raise the first $1 million in the Midwest, compared to the ‘coasts.’

“Our system is portable; [prospects] can click, sort by technologies, stage of technologies, and with a few clicks you can get to the technology you want to see,” says Psarouthakis. Though at UM the report is meant for promoting start-up opportunities, as the Pitt project illustrates it can be adapted in ways more directly focused on industry partners. UM sends the reports to VCs, recognized investors, and strategic corporations.

They are not sent “blind” to prospects he has not had previous contact with, Psarouthakis notes. But with strategic corporations, at least, that list is steadily growing. “I was at South by Southwest (SXSW) [held in early March] and met with close to 40 investors we were not engaged with previously; it’s a great place to network,” he shares.

Even with the pipeline report’s sorting function and spreadsheet, “the feedback is that people would like an even more customized report,” says Psarouthakis. “We hope to deliver that later this year.” This, he says, involves transitioning to Salesforce just as Pitt has done. “It has a lot stronger capabilities,” he asserts, adding that his team is currently working with a contractor to get it up and running.

How effective has the pipeline report been? “It’s been effective in communicating the volume and range of activity at the University of Michigan to a broader audience,” says Psarouthakis. “And it has helped 10 companies to raise millions of dollars.” Strategic corporations, he adds, have been very receptive. “For example, Intel has backed two of our companies as a result of introductions through our list,” he reports. “And there are venture funds who point to the pipeline and say, ‘Every university should do this.’”

‘Right tech, right time’

For Havrilla and Morley, their new approach to more targeted marketing has brought many benefits. “I think the key to this approach is to bring to partners opportunities that are truly rooted in their interests — the right tech at the right time,” says Morley. “Part of it had to do with us doing a better job of curating — another limitation of portals. With limited resources you can’t appropriately characterize them to give the partner the ability to make an informed decision. This gives us a better understanding of status if new data was generated recently. It brings key information forward — why does this matter? Why is it important look at? And it’s easy to digest; it can be sorted by therapeutic areas, such as oncology, or small molecules. You can narrow it down and look at that list.”

“It’s a way to get engaged with those 175 contacts — sending information, doing follow-ups — anything of interest when starting relationship management,” adds Havrilla. “The second piece of value is it’s clearly generating relevant technologies that individually wind up being of interest to companies. Last year, I think we did over 150 licenses; this vehicle gives us a way to promote them” along with partnership opportunities.

He adds that prior to developing the targeted approach, he had learned, from talking with industry partners, that Pitt had “a branding awareness shortfall relative to the university.” However, when his team is now regularly reaching out to 175 external firms, “we’re starting to create that awareness of brand. It also serves as a foundation for how to promote the university at major conferences.”

“Another key area we’ve built out is our ability to capture feedback when people pass on opportunities,” adds Morley. “I can go to the technology, see which companies looked at it, and log their feedback when they pass on it. Maybe it’s not at the right stage of development, and they’ve offered advice, he says — for example, ‘Once you get this through in vivo studies, why not come back to us?’ “That’s a value inflection point. We can curate, go back to the licensing team and say, ‘Can we please orient the research in a way that increases chances of commercialization?’”

Internal benefits

That feedback loop, he points out, is but one example of the broad internal benefits the system has produced. “We’ve already improved collaboration and communication across teams — the license manager team and the OIEP business development team,” he says. “We all sit under one organization, but in different groups. Having this uniform platform enables us to share in a much better way. It’s contributed to business development by reducing the friction in information gathering when you’re trying to find out the status of a particular technology or interactions with partners — everyone has the same information in front of them. That’s the biggest advantage we’ve realized.”

“We have dozens of inquiries about specific technologies in response to each edition of the Opportunity Report,” adds Havrilla. “I’m comfortable in saying we probably would not have gotten the majority of those inquiries without the Opportunity Reports; they would not have gone on the portal and found those technologies.” Of those inquiries, he adds, some have led to either sponsored research collaborations or licenses.

“Feedback from industry partners,” adds Morley, “has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Don’t forget power of networking

Despite this glowing report, Cho remains a bit skeptical. “It’s certainly one way to do it, a strategy, but I think it’s very expensive and time-consuming,” he says. “And I’m pretty curious how they measure outcomes.”

For him, it comes down to a tailored approach, too, but on a more personal level. “This is where networking is powerful,” he states. “I know these companies’ interests and challenges. These are things we work on; they may be pre-IP stage, or IP stage. One thing has not changed; it comes down to us knowing our own portfolio. We also need to know industry’s challenges. If you do not know those two, you can’t curate.”

He makes it clear that he is not at all rejecting the use of advanced systems to enhance engagement. “It is a digital world; but how can we automate the process? It’s not easy,” he says. “I know how good AI is, how good data systems are. That totally makes sense. What I see as difficult is that the portfolio as a whole does not change that often. Last year may look very similar to this year. A company may say, I’ve seen this before; send me new things.’”

But for Havrilla, while conceding that “this is nascent implementation,” he’s focused on expanding the use of the system. “Now we’re working on engagement — getting everyone trained who needs to use the system, making sure they’re fully engaged and understanding its value for the group,” he says. “The next step is having a number of next-level automations. The linkage to PIs, right now, is manual. If [researchers] make significant advances, that inflection point comes to us manually. We want to communicate all of those.”

However, even in this “nascent” stage, he declares, the Opportunity Report “allows us to have that level of engagement we’ve not been able to have before.”

Contact Cho at 434-422-0731 or joonhyung.cho@virginia.edu; Havrilla at 412-383-3773 or joseph.havrilla@pitt.edu; Morley at 412-624-0403 or Scott.morley@pitt.edu; and Psarouthakis at 734-678-4190 or mikeps@umich.edu.


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