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“Every one lives by selling something.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Even researchers. Selling an idea to colleagues, a grant proposal to a Research Council, a collaborative programme to an industrial partner. It’s all selling. So how could you do it better?

  • Would you like to know how to condense an idea into a compelling proposition?
  • How to find out what your industrial partner wants?
  • How to figure out who to talk to about your research?
  • How to make a meeting flow better? How to get things to happen without being pushy?
  • Or do you know all that and would like an opportunity to put it all into practice and get some useful tips and feedback?

Marcel Dissel will be giving the final run of his well-received day-long course

Selling for Researchers

30th November – Möller Centre in Cambridge

Selling for Researchers 071013

The course provides a framework for structuring and selling research ideas, there are tips and tools and an opportunity to practice pitching and negotiation of real research propositions drawn from the audience. Lunch is provided, there will be copies of the notes and a complimentary copy of a book which has yet more insights and lessons.

For those who want to build on this course and take it further we will be exploring case studies from past attendees of the course (December 14th) and we will be coaching and critiquing elevator pitches with the Visiting Professors of Innovation (January 20th).

This is open to anyone active in research at the University who is interested in improving the way they sell.

There are a limited number of places, so if you’re interested then please contact Holly Shaw at as soon as possible.

Engaging with industry – Where to start?

So you want to build a research collaboration with industry. What should you say to them? Who should you say it to? And how should you say it?

Pieter Knook (small)One man with a broad perspective on this is Pieter Knook, Visiting Professor of Innovation (, who shared his thoughts with an audience drawn from the Computer Labs, Engineering, Physics, Chemical Engineering and the Sanger Institute.

Pieter began with a sad truth – you’re selling; selling your research as an opportunity or an answer, selling yourself as the best person to do the work, and selling your proposition as the best thing your industrial partner can do with their time and money to address the topic served by your research.

So, what to say to sell most effectively?

Firstly, tailor your proposition. What is their problem? What’s their pain? Why would they care? What’s it worth? And why is your research the best way forward for them? You’ll need to understand the subtlety of what they’re doing and why – and you may need to decide how much you’re prepared to change direction to match them or whether you move on to look for another partner

What else is in it for them (and this might be at quite a personal level)? Is it about working with Cambridge University? Is it about boosting an individual’s career? During the selling and the collaboration afterwards you want somebody to act as your champion inside the company – so you need to be able to offer something compelling.

And why you? What’s special about your experience, background, insights? If they know about your area, so you may have to explain what makes your work different. And why this difference matters.

Extracts 1

Is your offer so compelling that you can shift them to action? Otherwise you’re condemned to a series of interesting conversations, without real commitment. And that commitment is what you’re seeking – so you’ll have to pursue it.

You’ll only get the answers to these questions by having conversations, so Pieter described a couple of different approaches derived from SPIN™. (See for a summary of Neil Rackham’s book).

Then, having decided the content, how can you make it as clear as possible?

Extracts 2How can you distil it down to the essentials – avoiding the unnecessary details that may distract your audience? Pieter used the example of Picasso’s approach to sculpting a lion.

And if you think Apple’s design philosophy is about distillation you’d be right – and Apple also adopts Picasso’s philosophy (

Now, how much to tell them?

You could tell them everything about how your approach works. At best it will bore them. At worst they’ll thank you for the insights and do it themselves. Better to focus on the problem that you’ll solve. And then tell them only what’s necessary to persuade them of your suitability as their best collaboration partner for this.

What if they object? Some people will respond immediately, while some will mull it over for a while – so give both sorts of people an opportunity to come back to you. Remember this is a dialogue. Defend without being defensive – and if there’s a real problem then acknowledge it. You’re building a relationship as well as selling, so don’t lie.

Turning now to who to say it to…

Obviously the most senior person you can contact, surely? Well, probably not. The organisation chart will not tell you where the power lies, it won’t tell you who could be your greatest ally, and nor will it tell you all the people who have to say ‘yes’ and must not say ‘no’. You’re looking for an advocate inside the company; somebody who will argue your case for you when you’re not there.

You’re not alone in this – ask colleagues in the Department, ask among the seniors. There may be some people with knowledge or prior experience of working with the company.

Go to conferences and especially to trade shows – this is where you find out about what is going on in the industry, this is where you can have the conversations you need.

And now, how to say it.

For a start, tell your story like you believe it – with some energy and confidence. And be yourself – if you are intrinsically serious, then present that way.

Extracts 3

Don’t use PowerPoint as a crutch. (Here are some good tips: And rehearse; try it out with a friendly but critical audience. Find elevator pitch sessions where you can get help to hone and polish your proposition and the way you present it.

So, what were the questions from the audience?

Pieter and the audience discussed how hard to push for a close. Don’t forget you have a limited amount of time so you need to be moving always towards gaining commitment. Are the next steps building this commitment or is it just a nice chat? It’s difficult to manage many parallel conversations with several industrial partners – you run the risk of letting down one or more of them, so it’s often better to work in quick sequence. Save pitching to your most attractive collaboration partner until you have refined your story.

When to discuss IP and its ownership? Late enough that it doesn’t overshadow how compelling your work is during the early conversations – and early enough that you can establish that both sides are prepared to negotiate so you don’t throw it all away at the end.

How to bring it to life? Make the results of your work as tangible as possible, paint a picture “imagine if …”. And be precise, because your audience will take your thoughts and run with them – perhaps in directions that confuse the conversation. So focus on clarity.

And if the subject of working with industry is of continuing interest to you – then come along to more of the events during the year – see or for updates.

Now that’s what I call industrial collaboration

In November 2013, as part of the Collaboration Skills Initiative series, the Visiting Professors of Innovation critiqued a series of elevator pitches ( Among them was a pitch for “voice recognition technology that actually works”.

Two years later, Apple acquired VocalIQ (

Congratulations to all concerned.

The 2015-16 Seminar Series

The Collaboration and Innovation Skills Initiative is launching its 2015-16 programme of seminars with a series that helps early-career researchers to engage with industry with well-targeted and clearly formulated propositions for research partnerships and funding.


A core series of four seminars begins in October and runs into early 2016, as follows:

  • Engaging with Industry – what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to. This will be run in conjunction with the Computer Lab and will be delivered on 16th October by Professor Pieter Knook, ex-Vodafone and Microsoft now an angel and venture partner.
  • “Selling for Researchers”. This is a participative day-long course for limited numbers and will help you develop your ideas and skills in pitching them to the right people in industry. Marcel Dissell will present this highly-acclaimed course on 30th November
  • Elevator Pitch rehearsals. Building on the lessons from the first two events, participants get an opportunity to test and refine their proposition by working with industrialists typical of the University’s research partners. This will run in early 2016.
  • Writing a successful grant application. Based on the preparation of the first three events, this will help you to assemble it all into a winning grant bid. This will run in the first quarter of 2016.


We will also run another stream to help people with the pragmatic tasks of engaging with industry:

  • How to set up, structure and run an industry-facing event. The massively experienced team from ECS will teach the tools, tips and tricks for an effective event
  • Information management with industry: The Library/Information Services group will open up the questions around accessing and using data with and for industry, especially issues around open access. This event will be held in March of 2016.


There are, of course, many other candidate topics we could cover, for example:

  • How to get funding from the Research Councils and Industry
  • Translational Funding Bridging the gap between research grants and commercial finance
  • What’s the commercial potential of your research? How best to use i-Teams, CUTEC and the JBS students
  • Working with your sponsor
  • Using roadmapping tools to value technology and to build collaborative buy-in
  • IP options and the Lambert


If you’re interested in any of these then please get in touch – and if you have other suggestions then please let us know. Contact Jo Griffiths (

Insights for Researchers from the Dowling Review

This is a very personal reading of the Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations ( published in July. In it I try to extract insights and lessons that researchers might find useful as they plan, manage and deliver their research in collaboration with industry and derive some suggestions for the future of our seminar series.

The question asked by the Minister for State was “how we can better support relationships between UK businesses and the UK’s world-leading university researchers” and hence the recommendations are tightly targeted on the key stakeholders; Government, Innovate UK, Research Councils, Funding Councils, Universities, Business, the Intellectual Property Office, and the Technology Transfer Offices (summary on pp77 ff of the Review). But although not specifically targeted, there are useful hints for researchers working with industry and looking for ways to improve their collaboration efforts.

If you thought the world looked complex in this domain, you’re right. Much of the Review’s discussion is about the complexity of the interactions between players and the support systems available. Recommendations focus on making support easier to understand and access and creating a system that makes it more effective overall.

There is also a call to make success in business-university collaboration more significant in recognition and career progression within academia (Recommendations 2 and 3).

One of the most significant recommendations lies deep within the Review and is prompted by the points that collaboration requires people to trust each other, and research collaboration requires particular trust. Furthermore, the review notes (para 48) how “when academics and businesses work together over many years, it becomes possible for the academics to truly understand the needs of the business and to identify new avenues for collaboration and opportunities for research to support the business, beyond those that the business itself may have recognised as being relevant.” And the importance of multidisciplinarity is also recognised.

Recommendation 18 (Para 109) calls for “pump-priming funds on a competitive basis to enable strong relationships between individuals in academia and industry to transition into group collaborations with critical mass, substantial industry funding and a long-term horizon.” This would help some of the best practice we have seen within CUED where projects have spawned adjacent collaborations. The networks of researchers have enjoyed very fruitful and long-term relationships that have led to outstanding papers and valuable commercial results. The keys to success here are a focus on a long-term relationship, the evolution from projects to trusted partners and the benefits of multidisciplinarity.

This recommendation could enable the creation of partnerships which maximise the returns and minimise the risks for both parties; the industrialists looking for dramatic outcomes and the academics choosing a career-defining research agenda.

The Review also has some very interesting data sets, including, for example, Figure 4 “Academics’ motivations for collaborating with business”

Fig 4

The complexity of the system is discussed, including a useful summary of the various participants.



Other interesting information includes the answers to the questions “What are the key success factors for building productive, long-term research partnerships between business and academia?”; see Figure 11 reproduced below


.. and also an assessment of the most frequently cited barriers to success mentioned in the evidence provided to the Review.


Then there are ideas in the Review that we might be able to pick up within the Collaboration Skills Initiative.

For example, one of the Reviews recommendations encourages spreading news of success in industry-business collaboration.

R7. Greater awareness of role models whose career progression has been helped by spending time in and/or working with business should inspire and encourage others to consider a similar path. Funding bodies and universities should do more to promote examples of researchers who have derived particular benefit from collaborating with industry.

And it led me to wonder what we might do locally in Cambridge to follow this advice?

One example of good practice highlighted is that of Interface in Scotland – see and we will explore what we might learn from their example.

The Doctoral Training Centres are suggested as an opportunity to build collaboration skills for the future so we will disseminate our programme this year explicitly to the DTCs in the University.

Intellectual Property is obviously an issue where there is space for guidance at all levels. For further help about patents and an easy introduction see The Review also discusses the Lambert framework for IP contracting and notes that 80% of those who use it regard it as useful, but only 10-15% (by value) of collaborations are based on Lambert-like arrangements. Therefore in the forthcoming seminar series we will touch on the potential use of the Lambert framework.

For similar reasons we will discuss the KTP Scheme (Knowledge Transfer Partnerships) and how it can best be used to support collaboration.

If there are other topics you’d like to hear about in the coming year then please contact us.

How does industry view academia?

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.

PanelCharles 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 (; 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.

audienceOne 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 ( 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.

Presenting unwanted research results

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.

What do you do? This was the question that Adelina Chalmers answered in Tuesday’s seminar as part of the Collaboration Skills Initiative.AC2

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.10 points

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


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