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 (www.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/strategic-themes/inspiring-research-through-industrial-collaboration/raeng-visiting), 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 www.sellingandpersuasiontechniques.com/support-files/spin-selling-summary.pdf 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 (www.fastcodesign.com/3034240/how-apple-uses-picasso-to-teach-employees-about-product-design)

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: www2.hull.ac.uk/lli/PDF/Presentation%20Skills.pdf) 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 https://engineerimpact.wordpress.com/ or http://talks.cam.ac.uk/show/index/47352 for updates.

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