You heard it here first

In a wonderful session last week we heard a series of elevator pitches from researchers at Cambridge covering everything from stem cell preparation and microstructure modelling all the way to new approaches to refrigeration. And, as is always the case in these sessions, you wonder if this could be the first hint of one of the next big things.

The Visiting Professors of Innovation, Sam Beale, Pieter Knook and Rick Mitchell, ( ) provided their critique and coaching – and this blog notes some of the insights that emerged.

Julia Tischler stepped into the difficult role of going first and presented a well-structured JTbusiness proposition for an automated fluidic stem cell culture system. She covered the problem, the proposition, the economics and the business model and ended with a crystal clear request pitched at candidate investors. By describing the size of the market and then focusing down to the particular problem that she proposes to solve she was able to take the audience with her every step of the way. Her presentation covered off almost all the questions an investor might have. This included the uniqueness of the team and its track record as a robust foundation

CKSecond up was Christine Kienl who, with almost no notice, delivered a pitch that described the clear line of logic between the need for high performance materials in extreme systems like jet engines, the need to understand how the manufacturing approachescrystals affect the microstructures that give these materials their remarkable properties, and the advantages of modelling versus extensive testing. And hence the importance of her research and that of her group in creating tools to predict the influence of manufacturing on end product performance.AD

The third presenter, Anaid Diaz, embarked on the challenge of pitching her skills for a new position in search of her ideal job. She neatly brought out her areas of greatest interest and enthusiasm, focusing on three clearly defined areas, and via a few key phrases left clues that she really understood her domain – but without loading us with detail. Her enthusiasm shone through and the audience responded.

512px-Slag_runoff_Republic_SteelIs the taxpayer being asked to fund the right thingLJ – a subsidy of energy costs or pursuing a profound change in the way industry works? With a very topical pitch, Lili Jia described how the team with which she works has brought together technologists and economists to work with researchers, designers, policy-makers and the steel industry supply chain to explore ways of reducing energy costs and moving towards the UK’s carbon emission targets.

ACAnd finally, in a spontaneous pitch almost completely without preparation, Aditya Chauhan opened up the prospect of massive reduction in the ever-increasing amounts of energy going into cooling. His work has looked at ferroelectrics and solid-state cooling (ferroelectric materials) and he painted a picture of immense potential – but some way off.


And as we discussed the pitches and as the VPIs and the audience fed back their suggestions for improvement I found myself wondering when I would next hear about these people and their initiatives and whether I had, indeed, heard it here first.

So what were some of the messages that emerged about the elevator pitch and ways to do it well?

Firstly, introduce yourself. Make sure the audience gets your name (remember that most famous of introductions – “The name is Bond, James Bond”) so they can contact you later. And think about how you want to grab their attention. Perhaps an interesting factoid? Maybe a question – but beware a question that might lead the audience in the wrong direction if they choose the wrong answer.

Beware claiming too much. Even if your work promises wins across a very wide range of applications beware the temptation to claim them all. The audience will engage more with a plausible story about a focused problem and solution. Start there and widen in a later conversation.

As you go through continue to scatter the little hooks that keeps the audience engaged – maybe another surprising fact or insight. And if you’ve structured your pitch to go from the general to the specific then this is easy to do and you can take them with you every step of the way.

Numbers aren’t the only way to impress – try an anecdote that brings your idea to life, maybe something that the audience can relate to. Perhaps use them to describe the problem; to illustrate the progress you’ve made or perhaps to sell your uniqueness.

Think also about how you’ll address the unasked questions of the doubter – why should I believe this? Where’s the evidence? So provide some supporting evidence along the way – not exhaustive but enough to keep the conversation alive.

As you bring your pitch to a close you might want to think about how far you’ve progressed in your research. Are you at an early stage or perhaps you have a prototype that’s available for demonstration? This is important for people who need to know whether they are joining you for a long haul, or whether you’re well along the way. And what about competitors? If this problem is so big or the idea so good then surely there are some competitors or alternative approaches. If you already know about them then you are yet more compelling and credible.

And finally the ask. If you have a specific proposition and a known audience then this can be very targeted. But even if it isn’t the right audience perhaps they can help you anyway. Could you ask for a reference, perhaps to be put in touch with someone who can help you, give you that next step to pursue your goal? And the bigger the risk you’ve taken with your presentation, the more enthusiastic you’ve been and the more you evidently care then the more sympathetic the audience will be and the more likely they are to give you that helping hand. Whatever it might be.

Then?  Practice.  Try variants.  Experiment to see what works.  Then practice some more.



Steel image credit: Alfred T. Palmer, FSA-OWI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The art of the elevator pitch

Have you noticed how important it is becoming to be able to pitch your ideas (and yourself) in just a few minutes?

So how good is your pitch?

And how good are your pitching and presentation skills?

The Collaboration Skills Initiative is holding a session to allow people to rehearse their elevator pitches and receive advice from the Engineering Department’s Visiting Professors of Innovation, all of whom come from an industrial and venture background. We’ll use the same format that worked so well during the recent ‘Sales for researchers’ course.

Wednesday 20th January

3:30pm for coffee and cakes – followed by the session

Oatley Room – Engineering Department, Trumpington St, Cambridge

If you’d like to come along, either to pitch or to observe, then please contact Holly Shaw ( There are a limited number of slots for pitches so if you want to pitch do please let Holly know soon.

Applying Selling Skills for Researchers

There was, again, excellent feedback from the people who attended Marcel Dissel’s recent course on Selling Skills for Researchers.

“Ah, yes”, say the cynics, “but what happens in practice?”

And so today, Nicky de Batista from CSIC ( and Frank Stajano from the Centre of Excellence in Cypersecurity Research ( described exactly that. Nicky described a project that he pitched to a construction company in Malta and Frank described how he used the skills to pitch for a big EU grant.


Nicky described using each of the models within Marcel’s course, beginning with a surprising opportunity at a family wedding which illustrated the first truth – you need to be able to describe quickly and concisely what you do and explain why it matters. You may have to tailor the message for your audience, but being able to respond quickly and decisively to the question “so what do you do?” may just open up an opportunity. That and going to the right sorts of weddings.

If your audience know your subject then you’d better be ready with the second part of the elevator pitch – your USP. What makes you unique and special? And in Nicky’s case this required him to differentiate himself from consultant engineers.

And then to keep the conversation alive use open ended questions. Asking “so how do you monitor the structural loads in your buildings today?” enabled Nicky to develop the conversation and build the opportunity to apply his structural monitoring research to a new problem.

Finally, you need to be clear what you want – and in Nicky’s case this was an opportunity for a visit to take the conversation to the next step. So reflect for a moment; what might you want? Have you thought about the sorts of things you would ask for?

Nicky got the chance to visit the potential partner and so now it was time for Marcel’s dictum of the five Ps – “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”. Nicky described his preparation, including understanding as much as he could of the industrial partner and the implications of the project they were discussing. And in a precursor to a point that Frank was to make later, Nicky was able to understand the pain that the industrial partner faced – the value and urgency of understanding the structural loads in the building.

During the critical meeting, a CPRone day visit to the site where the partner faced the problem, Nicky was also able to use the CPR model. Importantly, this enabled Nicky and his contact to clarify expectations and goals, which meant that the meeting was effective for them both – and that the meeting was set in the context of how they might build a project together. So now they were well on the way to consultative selling.

ConsultativeAt the very centre of consultative selling is the idea that the solution will be jointly defined and worked up by both parties. And in Nicky’s case, exploring how to actually do the project on-site enabled the industrial partner to see that Nicky’s ideas were credible and applicable and could offer a solution. This is much more powerful than simple assurances of competence – people can see experience at work.

And so finally, Nicky was able to create the formal technical proposal and quotation which he duly submitted. But in this case the proposal was not accepted due to internal debates and issues within the industrial organisation. So then, perhaps a failure? Not at all, in Nicky’s eyes. He’s planted a seed among many influential professionals, he’s demonstrated his capabilities and research area and he’s established his credibility. And, it seems to me, honed his selling skills.

Then Frank Stajano described his experience in winning a big EU grant. In the middle of the process Frank attended Marcel’s course and found it useful – but it needed some serious work and effort to take the lessons from selling and apply it to the situation that Frank found himself in. And Frank emphasised that it is possible to draw out these analogies and so build your skills in selling your research.


Frank’s key messages were “think about it all from the point of view of your audience” and “explain how your research might (eventually) address their pain”. In the case of a grant committee you may be talking about the benefits for the final beneficiaries rather than that specific committee, but the point remains the same.

Frank advocated following the process systematically. Explore the problem area that your research can address and figure out what might be the solution to an important and significant problem. Then track back to see how your research can be part of that solution. Now you have a line of logic that makes your research relevant and valuable to address a real problem – not just research that you would like somebody to pay for. And don’t forget, this work will stand you in good stead – it will help you to win that first grant and then it will enable you to continue to explain why your research matters, so you can keep emphasizing the importance of what you do. (And there’s the basis for your elevator pitch as advised by Nicky.)

Frank also found it important to create the discipline to get the homework done – despite the fact it’s not as much fun as the research itself. But unless you plan out your time and force yourself to do the background work (finding the calls for proposals, finding out the key issues and pain points, building the arguments for your research) it won’t get done and you risk stalling your career as an academic.

Frank explained also that, although the typical grant committee will be scientists (within the context of EPSRC), they will not be specialists that understand the details of your work. So it is vital to provide overviews and simplifications that enable your audience to understand your work to a level that they engage, get excited and want to back you. If they don’t engage with the promise you hold out then you’ll lose their support. And become just another “no” in the sea of “no” decisions that characterise the world of grant-writing.

Finally, remember that you want somebody to take action. So think hard about what action you seek – whether it be the approval of a research grant or the approval of a PhD. It’s all about persuading people that your research is likely to deliver a way to minimise their problems. So make sure you can see it all from their point of view.

Selling for Researchers

Selling is a skill like any other – with some frameworks, training and practice, most people can become much more competent. But isn’t it sad that manipulative sales techniques have tarnished the image of selling so that many people avoid it like the plague.

So Marcel Dissel began his most recent sales course with an exploration of manipulative selling – the tactics associated with the most unscrupulous of second had car salesmen. Including sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), hurrying for a close, ‘limited-time offers’, and many of the other ways to destroy a constructive relationship.

Marcel introWith that out of the way we moved on to explore consultative selling and the creation of working relationships that can underpin collaborative research between academia and industry

A harsh reality of selling is the number of rejections (just ask anybody who writes grant applications!). But the “no” messages can be useful feedback about how to adapt your research ideas to make them more valuable or understandable, more relevant or useful.

What about the “yes” answers? Well these may not be good news either. Have you got the right partner? Do you really understand them and they you? Have you got the basis for a good partnership? Or is this going to go wrong, foundering on a mismatch of expectations? So a good sales process will help you to get best value from both the “no” and the “yes” responses.

And if you have very few target customers then the process by which you focus in on a shared project becomes even more important. But don’t forget that within a large organisation you may have many different opportunities to sell.

Discussion roamed far and wide – the value of Cambridge as a brand, whether people prefer to be hunters (finding new business) or farmers (cultivating valuable relationships), and how different national cultures appreciate different points on a spectrum from “building a relationship” to “just get the deal done”.

There are two basic strategies (according to Harvard strategy professor Michael Porter); differentiate yourself or focus on cost. So you need to understand which your customer uses and see if you can tie your research to supporting their core strategy. How do they differentiate and so how can you help? Or how might your research enable them to reduce costs relative to their competitors?

Then Marcel showed us a sales process that provides a map for what to do and how, the outcomes sought and a way of tracking progress.

The first step of this (“identify the technology-problem combination”) was covered in detail by Clare Farrukh in April of this year ( and we will invite Clare and her colleagues to do a rerun in the second quarter of next year.  Then on to selecting and targeting the potential customers…

When you go to a conference do you check out the attendees, their organisation and their role? Do you set yourself an action plan of the people you want to see, why, and how you’ll go about it?

Maybe you run seminars and conferences in Cambridge (a nice destination for your audience). Do you use these to develop and cultivate a network of people interested in your work from a number of companies and a number of positions in the company?

All this is part of the 5P mantra – “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”.

And that applies to your elevator pitch – how do you concisely tell people what you do in a way that is engaging and interesting. And if you want something from them then your elevator pitch can lead to the specific request.

So we then embarked on the elevator pitches to sell research ideas to an audience – and as ever heard a fascinating set of propositions, for example; mathematics as a tool for industry, distributed sensors that cut the cost of inspecting big civil engineering structures, “a supercomputer under your desk” enabled by clever algorithms, growing artificial organs, a plug for a book (, managing the trade-off between service and privacy, predicting when concrete will need repair, the Maxwell Centre as an interface between academia and industry.

And arising from the pitches we discussed topics such as:

  • A general pitch or a tailored pitch? Answer – have a couple of elements and assemble them depending upon the audience
  • Finding and choosing the engaging example that your listeners can empathise with
  • Remember the call to action – what do you actually want? (if anything)
  • Insert a few words to establish your personal credibility – why are you the best person to be doing this?
  • Body language and how close you stand?
  • How do you decide which keywords will excite your audience and which begin to sound like “buzzword bingo”?

Role 1About the importance of practice – Marcel sends his professional salesmen on training courses every year to keep them fresh and to provide them with the opportunity to practice their skills. So the role plays that the teams then embarked on provided just such practice and taught both participants and observers some useful things:Role 2

  • How to keep control of a meeting – and how to regain it if you lose it,
  • How to open up a discussion to gather the information you need
  • How to manage expectations
  • How to manage the risk that you may have misunderstood
  • How to open up the options so there’s more opportunity to agree a way forward
  • How to avoid getting cut off in mid-flow because you misjudge the timing
  • How to negotiate and spot the traps
  • How to avoid getting trapped by a pushy industrial negotiator
  • How to ask for what you want and close the deal

role 2aAnd the role plays helped bring it all to life.

Finally, Marcel provided his usual one-page summary of the course. Dissel summary 151130

Frank Stajano and Nicky de Batista have used Marcel’s approach for real, and on Monday 14th December we will run a one-hour a seminar in which they will discuss what did and didn’t work and what they found most helpful in practice. So come along and hear about real selling of research. Contact Holly Shaw ( ) to reserve your place and free lunch.

If you’d like to practice your elevator pitch and receive coaching from the Visiting Professors of Innovation, then come along to the Engineering Department on the afternoon of 20th January. We’ve had about 40 people through the elevator pitch practice sessions now and most people find it really helps their research and the way they sell their ideas – again, contact Holly Shaw to reserve your place.

And if you’d like a copy of Marcel’s notes then contact


“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.