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“Put the right question to the right academic in the right way and the results can transform your business.”

I spend my life writing about how to grow ideas, build a business and compete internationally. For several months, I had the chance to talk to universities and entrepreneurs all over the country about the possibilities and limitations in their relationships. Here are a few thoughts on some key words in lining up projects and creating outcomes that work for everyone.

Put the right question to the right academic in the right way and the results can transform your business. The danger is that your query can easily be lost. At any one time, commercial teams at universities are likely to have dozens of external requests for grants to develop ideas.

To access the university and all it can offer, you cannot just treat it as a convenient way of outsourcing your research. You have to gain a sense of its culture and its priorities.

To catch the interest of a busy academic audience, four words in particular might work in your favour: impact, discovery, challenge and data.

Impact

Academics are living in a new world in which the criteria for funding their future research is no longer just based on its originality, but by the economic and social impact it makes. So spell out where you query might lead and who it might affect.

Discovery

Rather than just asking a university to run a few tests on your early-stage idea, explain how it has the potential for turning into a breakthrough. Academics are in the business of discovery. If you can catch their imagination, they will run the tests as a matter of course, as well as writing letters of support and directing you towards potential sources of funding:

“If you can catch their imagination, they will run the tests as a matter of course, as well as writing letters of support and directing you towards potential sources of funding.”

Challenge

The world of innovation is being driven by cross-disciplinary attempts to find solutions to major public challenges, such as climate change and the ageing population. Many universities are now re-organising themselves as a matrix in which traditional faculties on one axis are cut across by five to six major challenges on another. So make sure you say how you fit into the wider picture and how you might attract funding from government bodies, such as Innovate UK.

Data

Researchers almost always have a craving for real-life data. They might have the apparatus and know-how, but they are further from the direct experience and observation of how a problem manifests itself than you. If you can collect your findings and information in a form that can be analysed, your attractions as a partner can soar.

By highlighting how you can contribute to meeting academic priorities, you can start opening doors in the university. Culturally, you might still feel at a distance. Universities are naturally more in tune with corporates. They both move at a considered pace and any dialogue tends to be conducted between specialist researchers.

“Make a virtue of being small and close to market.”

As a smaller company, you will be more commercially focused and will be looking for solutions in the here and now, rather than following speculative lines of inquiry. So how might you get yourself noticed? Three words come into play this time: access, profile, position:

Access

Make a virtue of being small and close to market. Tell researchers that instead of sitting in a remote corner of a science park playing second fiddle, they will have direct access to the top of your company on a primary strategic issue that has every chance of being rapidly transferred into use. Equally, say upfront if your research partner has a chance of ending up in a senior role in your company within the next couple of years. A professor might be interested in joining your board, for instance, and an up-and-coming doctoral student could end up as your technical director in two years. Both are unlikely outcomes at your larger competitor.

Profile

The demand for scientific and engineering talent is so high that you have to make your mark early. So sponsor prizes and competitions at the start of the academic year. Perhaps offer work experience and run placements as well. You will then be recognised when you want to bring in a researcher to your business.

Position

“The demand for scientific and engineering talent is so high that you have to make your mark early.”

Project yourself as an innovative venture and a potential partner for the university. Future rounds of research funding, such as the EU’s Horizon 2020, are deliberately geared towards reviving industry through the most dynamic source of future wealth and jobs: SMEs. If you build the right relationship with a university, you could well find yourself part of a publicly funded programme to which you would never have previously had access.

However good your technical and operational capabilities, your chances of winning a slot on a public programme spot will be significantly less if you fail to express yourself in the terms that a university understands and appreciating how you fit into the wider academic picture.

Adam Jolly is author of ‘Working with Universities’, published by Crimson Business. For further details on ‘Working with universities’ click here.

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