How would an industrial reviewer assess your bid for research funding?

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? Sam

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.

RickAvoid 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.)Pieter
  • 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.

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