Obviously that depends upon the company, but the diverse trio brought together to discuss this issue for the Collaboration Skills Initiative discussed viewpoints from companies all the way from start-ups to research-intensive multinationals.
Charles Boulton, who has consulted widely and is now R&D Director of an SME, Chris Rider, who today works as an academic and as a consultant to start-ups and was with Kodak during a pivotal period of their journey, and Anna -Marie Greenaway who heads BP’s relationships with Cambridge University discussed the question (under Chatham House rules) in a workshop of about 30 people from across the School of Technology.
The panel was chaired by Tim Minshall who began by introducing the idea of “extrospective skills” from his colleague, Letizia Mortara (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/uploads/Resources/Briefings/v1n4_ifm_briefing.pdf); those skills that enable one to look outside and to see your world from another person’s perspective. Letizia’s and Tim’s research into open innovation shows these extrospective skills to be vital to success – did the panel agree?
In a wide ranging discussion there emerged some common themes and some useful differences.
A common message is that relationships matter, networking matters and breadth of interest matters. Each of the speakers discussed the value that industry sees from partnerships with academics who can network across disciplines and help to find the right people to address an industry problem. Relationships such as these are typically built over years and, as they mature, they allow industry to discuss interesting questions and problems with trusted academics. Sometimes this turns into valuable research. Sometimes, even more valuably, the academic explores a wider or deeper question – and this challenge of the choice of question is greatly appreciated. Such reframing can profoundly change the direction of work and its ultimate success. Answering a question from the floor, the panel’s view was that success in building relationships depends upon an individual academic’s personal breadth of perspective as well as the breadth and richness of their network.
Strong networks of personal relationships also make the link between a company and its academic partners more resilient against, for example economic downturn that might cause a pause in research or the move of an individual to another role. By keeping multiple parallel links, especially across several disciplines, partnerships can be forged that start from small and exploratory projects to grow to large and broad undertakings.
Good research projects are a matter of both topic and timing. A good topic but at the wrong time will not be pursued. So an important part of building and maintaining a long-term relationship is the capacity to wait for the time to be right to pick up a good topic identified earlier. An idea ahead of its time won’t be a good research project.
The R&D group in a company has to compete internally for resources, so anything an academic can do to help the case is very valuable. Having got the funding then the commercial champion will have to decide where it is focused and how best to get value for the company. Often this is about transferring capabilities from academia to industry but there may be other things that attract industry to work with academia – exchange of ideas, new perspectives on problems (the art of the good question), recruitment and to have access to a small group of excellent people, some of whom may want to move to the company. Some companies are beginning to focus on recruiting postdocs and are exploring how to make this work as well as possible.
Employing academics researchers is expensive, costing as much as or more than an employee once overheads are added in. So the industrial partner really needs to see value and successful delivery. (Or, please, the earliest possible warning if things are not going well). Only in this way can the funding continue to be defended inside the company.
The best research combines the skills of academia and the skills of industry, so complementary teams are the most powerful and give superb results for both industry and academia. The flexibility needed for this, especially in introducing new people to the relationship, is key to success and the most valued academics are skilled at bringing in the most appropriate colleagues from other disciplines.
One question from the floor opened up debate on how best to start a relationship. The panel preferred beginning with small projects to minimise risk while the partnership builds maturity and trust. Starting with student projects enables both sides to learn about the other. It can help both the industrial and the academic partner to explore new areas of potential collaboration at low risk. (And it might provide recruitment and job opportunities).
The open days held by University departments are a valuable opportunity to showcase capabilities and a good way to broaden discussions. Although very competitive, the Innovate UK schemes now provide funding support under rules (https://interact.innovateuk.org/guidance-for-applicants) that make collaborative projects more attractive to industry.
What about the differences of opinion among the panel – where there is a diversity of views from industry? IP was the most significant example. Industrial attitudes to IP depend upon the company and may even vary across the company. They depend upon the industry, its maturity, the position of the company in the industry and even the culture of the company. Common concerns are shared, for example of a competitor getting access to or control of valuable IP. But the upside value of IP may be immense, for example to underpin a new business venture or as the “crown jewels” of a start-up. In some companies, however, the concern is to build the market and then widespread dissemination of the knowledge may be more important. Sometimes the absence of protection may drive an industriial partner away – why would a company want to support research when the foundation intellectual property is unprotected, exposing them to the risk of being bypassed by a competitor and being unable to defend their investment. Framework agreements enable individual collaborations to be designed and initiated more quickly and efficiently. But, in the worst case, slow and frustrating IP negotiation can be a show-stopper.
In closing, Charles asked academics to be aware that individuals within their industrial partners may be taking career risks with the research project and the alliance with a university. The failure of the project or a failure of the university partner to deliver on time and as expected could blight the pay, the prospects and the career of a person in industry. Anna Marie responded by pointing out that this responsibility is two-way – that academics have their careers to manage and that, in so many ways, industrial responsiveness and consideration can make or break an academic career. So both parties need to see the world from the other’s perspective.
Which brought the discussion full circle back to Tim’s opening remarks about extrospective skills – maybe these are the most important attributes within both academia and industry for collaboration to flourish.
You have an industrial sponsor anxiously awaiting your words of wisdom from the research project you are completing for them. You know they have great hopes that the answers you will provide will be valuable and useful. And it all started so well….
But now you know that the results you have are not what they hoped for. Perhaps they hoped for the wrong thing. Perhaps things went wrong along the way. Perhaps somebody let you down. But for whatever reason, you’re pretty sure that what you have to tell your funders is not going to look like a good use of their money.
She focused on situations where there is a strong commercial drive for the work and where there is a clear need for a short-term solution – this is not curiosity-driven research, but rather hard-nosed industrial research.
And she explained that you need to think about three things; What are you going to tell them? How are you going to structure what you tell them? And then how are you going to deliver it. And in this seminar she covered the first two.
So, addressing firstly the content; of all the things you could tell your industrial sponsor, how do you choose where to focus? Adelina’s answer was that it all depends on what you want the outcome to be and what outcome you think the sponsor want. What do you want to happen after you present? What do you think they want? Be thoughtful and specific. Remember what the problem is that they face – as distinct from the research question you addressed. So think about content from their point of view to discern what is most valuable. And think about it from your point of view to see what is most compelling. Your best choice of content lies at the intersection of the valuable and the compelling.
And just because your results did not answer the research question does not mean that your results are valueless. What insights have you acquired that might address the overarching conundrum that your sponsor faces?
Adelina then went on to cover the structure of presenting research results – how are you going to order your material to make it most accessible and most useful?
She highlighted the analogue of the reptilian brain at the root of human concerns – focused only on survival – so give them a quick answer that reduces the threat first, and promises to be interesting. This is number one – the “sweeping statement”. Only when your audience has processed this will they be listening for subtleties.
Now you have to engage with them – and Adelina invoked the idea of the “wolf brain” as one level above the reptilian brain – so you then focus on empathy and belonging. Discuss the people aspects – the research team, the emotions during the journey of the research project, the challenges. This is when your audience begins to empathise with you. Explain the problem – theirs as well as yours so they know you understand them before you ask them to understand you. So cover items 2-6 in the table above.
And then, having passed to the highest level of brain function now you can engage with the logical aspects of your presentation. Now is the time to present the Twist – the way in which your failed research can prevent them from wasting investment, or the way in which alternative approaches you can envisage still gives them a way forward.
And finally, the call to action. You must tell them what next steps you want and why. Don’t expect them to guess. Keep the initiative.
Adelina illustrated her presentation with examples drawn from the audience which brought it all to life and demonstrated the approach in practice. And if you’d like a copy of her notes contact her at email@example.com
Many university-industry collaborations seek a way to jointly map out their future. They need a way to align the needs of the industrial partner with the technology offering of the academic researcher so that both parties can see the big picture. Roadmapping is one such way – and on 30th April Nicky Athanassopoulou took a Collaboration Skills Initiative workshop through the principles and practice of roadmapping.
Roadmapping also shows how the needs and drivers from the market pull through the functions and features of the products and services of the industrial partner. This can then be coupled with the “push” from the technology offerings from research. By showing this on a single map it becomes possible to iterate towards a shared vision of the future, soundly based in today’s reality and negotiated collectively.
As an exercise, the workshop participants developed a roadmap for a “mobility vehicle” for the future, creating a vision for a future product and exploring how to integrate innovative technologies to it. This opened up a variety of approaches and technologies from fuel cells and light, cheap composite materials all the way to nuclear electricity generation!
The exercise illustrated how market drivers can inform product developments which in turn can inform technology priorities. With the priorities clearly in focus then academics can better integrate their research into collaborations with industry. Roadmapping also enables researchers to illustrate how their offerings might develop or even transform a product offering. Developed collaboratively, roadmapping can help both academics and industry develop a common view and understanding of pertinent issues and preferred solutions.
The EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account has some resources to fund roadmapping workshops (available on a first come first served basis), so if you’re interested, contact Claire Higgett to explore the options (www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/rso/iaa/contact/).
The three Visiting Professors of Innovation (Sam Beale, Pieter Knook and Rick Mitchell) shared their views on what does and doesn’t make a compelling pitch, bringing their years of experience in Rolls Royce, Vodafone/Microsoft, and Domino to bear – plus the work they’ve done in recent years helping academics hone their pitches for big bids. And on 13th April, an audience of thirty engaged with them in a wide-ranging debate about how to make their research propositions more compelling for an industrial partner.
A consistent theme in all that the Professors said could be summarized as “think about it from an industrialist’s point of view”. Have you shown you are interested in their problems and that you are able to help them? Is your message clear and concise? Is it clear that you know a bit about their business and strategy (for example from their website) so you’re able to describe how your research might help them. Have you drawn out the key opportunities – without being so crass as to tell them their business? And have you managed the minor courtesies – like spelling the name of the organization correctly?
Bear in mind that anybody in industry who wants to back your research will have to justify their decision to others – either to their peers or to their bosses. So, how can you help them? If they had to summarise your research and its value for their organization then how would they do that? So clarify your core message for them so it is succinct and compelling. And find the ‘sizzle’ or the ‘hook’. What is the attention-grabber, the thing that lifts your work and its implications above the mundane?
One the one hand this is a pitch for you the individual – and on the other hand it’s a pitch for the whole University. Why are you and your team the best to do the work? Why not somebody else at another university? (And remember that your competitive edge might be that you understand how to deliver value to your industrial partner better than other exponents of your technology.)
But it’s also a pitch for the whole University. When an industrial partner decides to work with academia they usually are seeking more than just you and your team. Can you give them access to a wide range of ideas and other skills, can you give them ideas for the future, or perhaps you can point them at good students who might be valuable future employees? So keep an open mind about all the ways you can provide value to your industrial partner – and then explain it to them.
Avoid the cardinal sin of telling them their business. They’re not stupid and they’ve probably been thinking about their market and their problems for years – so don’t be arrogant and don’t patronize them. Tell them what your technology can do and propose ways in which it might be able to help – sell but don’t insult.
Think also about the person you’re speaking with – are they a decision maker, or are they a gate-keeper? And if the latter, then what do they need to know to allow you to continue the conversation. And ensure that you personally come across as credible – knowledgeable, competent and helpful.
Questions and comments flowed thick and fast.
- What do I do if my contact moves? (Track them and ask them to introduce you to their successor and to coach your entry to other parts of the organisation.)
- How do I judge whether my research fill fit with their timescales? (Most companies will be very interested in intractable problems that they can’t solve inside one or perhaps two product cycles. So think about the pace of their industry and address the problems that they can’t manage with their own product or process development teams. Think also about how you can present interim findings that might give your industrial partner a quick win. Take the opportunity to broaden the discussions to uncover shorter term problems you might help with – perhaps through student projects. You may be able to introduce them to another academic able to help them with a pressing issue. But don’t forget that the company will want some answers in the timescale of the funding – “If it’s a one-year programme you’ll need to deliver something within one year!” And don’t approach a company with a curiosity-driven proposition. Find a real commercial outcome in order to make it worth their investment in you.)
- Won’t there be a problem with publishing? (For some companies, the opportunity to be visibly associated with leading edge research is a positive advantage. So managed carefully, publishing can be a win-win.)
- What if my technology is a fundamentally different approach to that which they themselves use – should I still pitch for it? (By all means – but be prepared for it to be more difficult. The industrial partner may have chosen theirs for a good reason, they may have a lot invested in it, both financially and emotionally, and you may trigger an outbreak of NIH (Not Invented Here). Very occasionally a company might choose to support your work as a comparison, but this is not very likely. In a federated company, with a number of relatively independent R&D centres you might find a sympathetic audience in a different centre.)
- What if we have a good conversation – but they haven’t got the money to support my research? (Don’t abandon hope – maybe they will give you access to company data, perhaps their tools and techniques, maybe their expertise. Sometimes this sort of collaboration will enable funding from another source because of the quality of your industrial links and access.)
- Is there any point in cold calling? (It’s difficult to find the particular person with the specific problem you can solve. Instead, try for a meeting so you can understand better what is going on. The chances of you ‘selling’ from a cold call are very slim indeed. And before you start, refine your proposition so you know exactly what your hook is. What’s special?)
- What should I ask for in a letter of support? (Specificity! Why exactly are they interested, what exactly will they do to help and, insofar as they will discuss it, what’s the commercial benefit? Never, ever use a standardized form letter.)
- Is one better going for small companies or large? (Small companies seldom have enough money to support academic research. But you could work with them to get funding from elsewhere – either the Research Councils or Innovate UK.)
And after the formal session ended the discussions continued in small groups with the Visiting Professors discussing individual’s specific concerns and opportunities.
As ever, they’re happy to help so if you’d like to contact the Visiting Professors see www.researchandfinance.eng.cam.ac.uk/collaborations/raeng-profs.
Clare Farrukh and colleagues from the Centre for Technology Management (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/ctm/) have been researching the question of how to establish the value of a new technology, in recent years via the Strategic Technology and Innovation Management consortium (www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/ctm/stim/) project. On 20th March Clare shared some insights in a workshop at the Engineering Department where participants also used some of the tools that have been developed within Clare’s work.
The core of Clare’s research has been to develop a practical approach for engaging both commercial and technical stakeholders in evaluating a technology project in order to demonstrate potential impact at an early stage.…..an early view of ‘what’s it worth?’
The key is to get multiple viewpoints and perspectives, because such diversity provides the means to uncover the richest sources of value in a new technology. This means involving not only people who understand the technology, its potential and its constraints, but also people who understand the problems faced today, how they’re addressed and therefore what is the current competing solution to any particular problem. And indeed, there may be an adjacent problem that is worth more and is more easily solved by the new technology – so that may be a better first target. The important task is to find the overlap between a market problem that has a value and the technology’s capability to address the problem better than current approaches.
Clare’s work has established a pragmatic approach to build the outline and key elements of a business case for the technology. Industry likes having templates to drive more effective thinking and to pursue the efficiencies of allowing people to work independently, followed by workshops to drive outcomes and commitment. Clare explained that 70-80% of the work is done beforehand though emails and phone calls with only 20-30% depending upon workshops. And those workshops are well structured to get the most value from participants’ time.
This approach need not be used only at the early stages of development; changes in the marketplace, discoveries during development or changes in company strategy would all be triggers for a rerun of the approach. By keeping the dialogue alive there are more and better opportunities to spot value.
Clare presented the core structure of the workshop and the checklist of important questions (see Figure below)
Workshop participants then got an opportunity to explore the process. We looked at two technologies, led by Tanya Hutter of Sensorhut (www.sensorhut.com/) with a technology for sensing volatile chemical species at very low concentrations and by Arman Hashmeni (www-csd.eng.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/arman-hashemi) of the Centre for Sustainable Development with a thermal window shutter technology. After the leaders had introduced their technologies the participants explored the technology capability, the users’ needs or the new opportunity and then, critically, the technology-need combination and, finally, the expected returns. (Figure to right) This provided a framework for the next step.
Choosing one of the technology-need combination, participants then looked at the structure of the industry (see template below). This aims to find to whom the technology could offer the most value – and can lead to some valuable insights and non-obvious ways forward.
Finally, participants looked at the ‘performance dimensions’ of the problem to be addressed, the new technology and the current solution. This unearths the different criteria and different sources of value that may be available, and also maps out possible development opportunities, either for the technology itself or for the way in which it is taken to market and exploited.
Reviewing the workshop, the technology ‘owners’ commented that the approach had identified new and previously unexplored opportunities. It is clear that following the process is important in order to avoid prior mindsets driving the team to old solutions, while the diversity of viewpoints helped to flag up new insights.
Finding the different drivers of value also made it possible to focus attention to where there may be quick commercial wins, perhaps interim stepping stones, to larger, more valuable opportunities that are harder to access.
If you’d like a copy of Clare’s slides then please contact Charles Boulton (cb683 at cam.ac.uk).
Continuing the theme of exploring a research agenda alongside an industrial partner, this seminar will be followed up on Thursday 30th April when Nicky Athanassopoulou will discuss how to use roadmapping to build better partnerships based on shared views and expectations between academic researchers and their industry partners.
How often does excellent research fall at the last hurdle trying to scale-up to manufacture? Or get delayed much to the frustration and sometimes loss of the academics and industrialists involved? What are the blocks to bringing an emerging technology to industrial realisation and how can they be overcome?
Dr Charles Featherston (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation is exploring just these issues within a project called “Pathways to Manufacturing” (http://tiny.cc/p2manu ). Some of the topic areas he and the team are addressing include production technologies; system integration; supply chains; resource efficiency and sustainability; compatibility with evolving standards and regulations; etc.
The project will develop a ‘manufacturability risk framework’ to help researchers consider a wide range of risk factors, helping them to reflect on such considerations when approaching potential partners, developing research proposals to public funders and developing business cases for potential investors.
Working from the framework, researchers will be better able to anticipate the manufacturability challenges and so address them early in their research. It will also help researchers think about co-ordinating the necessary inputs from their network of collaborators, both academic and industrial.
The project is hosting a half-day workshop on the afternoon of Wednesday 15th April at the Institute for Manufacturing, Cambridge to discuss the work and its significance. Speakers will include Mark Claydon-Smith (Lead, Manufacturing for the Future, EPSRC) and Dave Wright (Head of Manufacturing, Innovate, UK). They will discuss the significance of the issue and the research agenda from the perspectives of their organisations.
Andy Matthews, Director of the Nokia Research Centre and Chris Rider, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics will then discuss their experiences of the issues of manufacturability and scale-up of emerging technologies.
A panel session will wrap up the afternoon, enabling the audience to contribute to the discussion and open debate around key issues. There will also be plenty of opportunities for networking and informal discussion.
If you are interested in finding ways to identify and manage the risks of scaling up research to get it manufactured and into industrial production then contact Ella Whellams (email@example.com) to reserve a place at the workshop.
Hope to see you there
(Image acknowledgements: Heat treatment furnace, S Zillayali, Vacuum Forming Machine: Blue tooth7)