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 (email@example.com) 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a place at the workshop.
Hope to see you there
(Image acknowledgements: Heat treatment furnace, S Zillayali, Vacuum Forming Machine: Blue tooth7)
So you’ve put in all the hard work to write the bid, and you’ve been successful enough to be invited for a panel review. But you know that this will be challenging. How do you ensure that you best represent yourself, your colleagues and your work?
Answer – assemble a “red team” to critique your presentation (and indeed your original proposal) so that it is as clear, communicative, compelling and robust as possible.
Philip Guildford, Director of Research and Finance in the Engineering Department, described the “Pyramid Principle”. Iteratively craft your ‘governing thought’ (the one sentence that summarises your proposition) and build below that a pyramid of supporting evidence. Each layer of argument or evidence adds more detail in support of the layer above – all the way to a compelling governing thought. This discipline enables you to edit out extraneous material – if it doesn’t fit in the pyramid of logic then it doesn’t add to the argument and should be left out.
With your argument sound you then move on to the question of how to sell it. Philip explained the Situation, Complication, Question, Answer sequence. Begin with a simple statement of a prevailing situation – your audience will agree and be nodding their heads. Then identify the problem – the complication. That raises a question – and now your audience is waiting for the answer. And, of course, your research will find the answer to the question, so resolving the complication and easing the situation. It’s no accident that this sounds like a film script – “It was a dark and gloomy house. Suddenly the door creaked open and there in the doorway stood…. What could it be?” An engaged audience is much more interested in your answer – so hook them in.
Professor Rob Miller of the Whittle Laboratory picked up the thread and described how he had assembled a red team of academics and industrialists to critique his bid and presentation for a CDT in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics. He attributes the bid’s success to trying hard to understand their customer’s perspective – so arguing explicitly why a CDT is needed (to support the UK economy) and how the CDT addresses this (by providing a holistic education that spans three institutions integrating many tools and techniques) and that adds special value (students that understand the sector and its technology).
He assembled a red team that included Sam Beale, now a Visiting Professor in Innovation and previously Head of Research in Rolls Royce. Here is a man who has heard many pitches in the area from industry and academia and knows how to ask the difficult question.
Rob highlighted the area of uncertainty that the red team raised – how would the CDT be managed? What would happen if the research didn’t go to plan? From where would they get an outside perspective? This advice enabled the CDT team to create simple diagrams, replacing paragraphs of text, bringing to life an elegant answer to the question – a question that a review panel would be likely to raise.
Dr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, focused on the power of pictures – for both good and ill. A page of text that repeats the content of the bid borders on the insulting – have the reviewers read it and did they understand it? So start with greater impact – a memorable quote or, in Tim’s case a picture of the Hype Cycle. This grabs a review panel’s attention. Work hard to find the single diagram that simply and elegantly explains the core of your proposition. Then use this.
Best of all is to have a framework for your project – a diagram that you can use throughout the document and the presentation. Hang off this framework all your important point. By using the same framework throughout you can keep your audience with you and maintain a unity to your story.
Finally Tim pointed out that not all pictures are interpreted the same way by everybody! One diagram he tested with his red team could be interpreted in two very different ways – the way Tim saw it and designed it, and in a way that obscured and confused. So check how people see your pictures and diagrams! Don’t assume it’s obvious!
Your bid sinks or swims in the first few minutes – so if you confuse or alienate your review panel you will find it hard to recover. So test your presentation!
Your red team will be tougher than the review panel – so you can work on your agility and response to nasty questions. Get the nerves out of the way in a practice session!
Recruiting a red team is remarkably easy – colleagues are generally willing to help and you can also ask your Knowledge Transfer Facilitators as well – here’s a list by department www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/rso/iaa/ktf/. If you are a member of the University you can also access examples of good applications at www.researchandfinance.eng.cam.ac.uk/funding/successful-apps .
You have so little time to present that you may wish to show a diagram that gives the overall picture, but that hints at the detail behind. If you stimulate a question about the detail then you can demonstrate your competence. Similarly, under the constraints of your bid you must weed out the unnecessary paragraphs – no matter how elegant they are. As Rob Miller said – “you may love that paragraph or argument, but if it doesn’t help then it has to go!”
Tim Minshall raised the importance of “knowing the rules of the game” – so look here for the reviewer forms and guidance notes www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/assessmentprocess/review/rev/ . There’s a lot more on adjacent pages on the EPSRC website.
If you’d like a copy of the slides contact Charles Boulton (cb683 at cam.ac.uk). And if you would like to hear an industrial reviewer’s perspective then come along to the session on Monday 13th April, when the Visiting Professors of Innovation will be describing their perspective, the questions they ask and why. See our Upcoming Events on the right of this blog for details.
The key to getting money from any sponsor, be they industrial or from the Research Councils, lies in absolute clarity about what you want to do, why it’s valuable, and why you are the best person to do it.
And there’s a simple way into this:
Situation: Your proposal to either a research council or to industry is just one of many competing for attention and funding.
Complication: Faced with lots of bids, reviewers get jaded and lose the will to wade through more turgid stuff
Question: So how do you make your proposal clear, concise and memorable?
Answer: Use the pyramid principle to organise your logic and to engage your audience.
At a seminar given to about 40 people from the Cambridge postdoc community from engineering, materials science, chemistry and the Computer Lab, held at the University’s Postdoc Centre (www.pdoc.cam.ac.uk), Philip Guildford presented the Pyramid Principle (developed many years ago by Barbara Minto) and explained how it can be used to structure good proposals. A vital first step is to create a draft “governing thought” that captures the proposition. Then design a pyramid of logic, each step clearly made up of others and on a sound foundation that clarifies your premise.
Then, with your pyramid in place explore how to set the scene for your reader. Begin with a ‘situation’ statement – a statement of fact that gets the reader nodding in agreement that you know what’s going on. Then add the ‘complication’ – this is poses the dilemma which is usually the core purpose of your work. Then articulate clearly the ‘question’ – this is the question you’d like to answer through your proposal. And finally craft a concise answer – which is the answer to the question or which describes how your work will provide the answer.
Now, the magic step. Pull together the situation, the complication, the question and the answer into a “governing thought”. This is at the top of your pyramid. And now you can iterate on the SCQA and on your pyramid of logic to create a robust proposal with incontrovertible logic that shows it just has to be supported – doesn’t it?
Avoid the error of first writing your proposal and then going back to impose a logic later – you’ll fail or you’ll have to rewrite. (And at the end you’re usually tired and under time pressure!)
Take the opportunity to check your pyramid of logic with colleagues – they can help you to make it more robust and more easily understood by people who are not so close to the topic.
Obviously you’ll need to tailor the situation to the interests of your audience – industry will be interested in the commercial aspects while the Research Councils will care about the scientific state of play into which your work fits.
Another use for the pyramid principle is to break a problem down so you can see the components – the answers that need to fit together to deliver the completed solution. So you can use the diagram to plan the projects that will provide the various answers that assemble to answer the bigger question. So now you, your colleagues and your sponsor can share a view of what is being done and why – even across a complex programme of projects.
If you’d like a copy of Philip’s slides please contact Charles Boulton (cb683 (at) cam.ac.uk)
On Friday 12th December, amidst many questions and much debate, Julian Peck of Cambridge Enterprise described an example of the rollercoaster ride that can unfold as people take their technology to market – licensing, sublicenses, patent fields, complementary technologies, phoenix companies, personality clashes and eventual reconciliation.
Along the way and afterwards he discussed the pros and cons of trade secrets, the trade-offs to be made in choosing countries in which to patent, whether databases are protectable and how to exploit previously published work. He also talked about different business models – for example do you use a ‘freemium’ model or, perhaps, trust in first-mover advantage and use your leadership and agility as a way to sell a series of consultancy assignments? He also discussed the default arrangements in ownership of intellectual property for people wanting to work through Cambridge Enterprise or wanting to work directly – and faced probing questions about the trade-offs.
The case study brought to life the realities of developing and exploiting research and the rich questions from an engaged audience made the whole session fascinating.
Contact Julian at Cambridge Enterprise (Julian.email@example.com) to ask for advice, perhaps an assessment of your options or for signposting to the many other sources of help in Cambridge Enterprise and across Cambridge.