Category Archives: Industry Alliances

Aligning Interests between Academia and Commerce

When we are putting together collaborations across academia and commerce, success is all about understanding priorities and aligning interests.  The link below will take you to a presentation that will show you how to do this.

If you can’t play the embedded video on your computer, you can view it here:

The Academic Comfort Zone

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
-Neale Donald Walsch

Being in your comfort zone is overrated. To convince yourself of this fact, simply interview anyone who has achieved something worthwhile, and you will find that going outside of the comfort zone was an indispensable step in their achievement.

Universities are engines of innovation, but most agree that the rate at which innovation emerges from universities in the form of new products and services is much lower than it could be. What is limiting this rate?

To answer this, we need to realize is that universities are a refuge of sorts – a place that is designed to enable brilliant minds to engage in discovery unfettered by the immediate concerns of ROI.

Universities are vital to the process of innovation and advancement: they educate students who bring new ways of thinking to old problems, and they make new discoveries that no one else would make because no one else has the opportunity to delve so deeply.

In creating this type of refuge, we also create a comfort zone. Because governmental support for science and technology is designed to support long-term, high-risk work regardless of immediate return, ROI is not a factor in getting government funding. University researchers become successful at pitching research ideas without serious reference to commercial outcome. Peer review – which is critical for the success of science – further reinforces this tendency.

University researchers are rewarded for thinking in this very specific way, and this creates the comfort zone. As it dawns on a researcher that they may need to work with a company or an entrepreneur to see their discoveries become products or services that can benefit society, they may find themselves a victim of their own past success. Many researchers reflexively approach companies as if they are yet another type of funding agency, but since companies are not in the grant-making business, a partnership fails to materialize.

This basic failure to communicate means valuable commercial opportunities are often not recognized, or when they are, the resulting partnership does not go well. Communication failure is the rate-limiting step in commercializing university innovations. Communication failures lead to loss of trust. Without trust, our partnerships fail.

The communication gap between scientists and non-scientists is well-recognized. Organizations such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science work “to train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.”  If scientists fail to communicate to non-scientists, there can be no impact of new ideas and discoveries on how the rest of the world operates.

With the decrease in research funding from government sources – arguably due, in part, to this communication gap – researchers are experiencing more pressure to move outside of their comfort zone and work with partners in commerce. Some will be successful, others will not.

Universities and their funding models have inadvertently created this ROI-free comfort zone for researchers. It is arguably the university’s responsibility to give researchers the tools and training to bridge the resulting communication gap. Researchers need to be amenable to pushing the envelope as well, and at the very least, seek out guidance about how to pitch to companies and entrepreneurs.

Once you recognize that you are in a comfort zone, it’s easy to know what to do next – it’s the thing you know you should do, but that inspires your greatest degree of procrastination. The best day to put that very thing on your to-do list is today.

Academia vs. Commerce: Bridging the Cultural Divide

Academia is the world of universities and research organizations that focus on publication and the dissemination of knowledge.  Commerce is the business world: industry, entrepreneurs, investors.  These very different worlds and cultures have something in common – they are infamous for their reputation for not getting along with each other.

Companies often complain about the bureaucracy they encounter when working with universities and are suspicious of the university’s motives.  It seems crazy how long it takes to do deals, and people in the university either don’t understand or don’t care that their proposed terms and the delays put a strain on getting internal buy-in for the agreement.

On the flip side, universities often complain of companies being exploitive and not understanding the rules, policies and laws they must follow.  University negotiators feel like the company is asking them to do the impossible; they are being pressured to do risky deals that will set a bad precedent, and they begin to dig in their heels in order to protect their organization and its reputation.

The good news is: both sides are wrong about how they view one another’s motives. Winston Churchill once said “America and England are two nations divided by a common language.”  It is precisely the same problem between Academia and Commerce.  It seems like we are communicating, but we are not.  The bad rap that each side gets has everything to do with the communication barriers that occur across the cultural divide and the assumptions people make when communication is less than perfect.

A term that cross-cultural psychologists use for a person who engages with members of another culture for a specific purpose (e.g. business, school, job, etc.) without having the goal of joining that culture is a “sojourner.”  Being a sojourner is tough.  The assumptions and customs that a sojourner carries from their own culture may cause them to come across poorly to members of the host culture.  Frustrations often erupt and a sojourner who isn’t communicating according to the other culture’s expectations can seem stupid, deceitful, or even crazy.

Sound familiar?

Once we understand that we have a cross-cultural communication issue, we can begin to solve the problem by using methods that work across other cultural divides.  Slow down. Check meanings.  Don’t make assumptions.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Write things down and get feedback.  Take turns.  Use the power of nice.

And most importantly, let’s figure out what etiquette we will use for such cross-cultural communications.  As a frequent sojourner, my recommendation is to adopt the etiquette of whoever you are speaking with rather than expecting them to figure out yours.  It’s more work, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like you should have to do it.

If you feel like you are right – because you’re the customer, because you’re smart, or because you are knowledgeable about rules, policies and laws – then you may feel it’s not your job to put in the effort; let the other side do that.  But in the end, the feeling of being right is not nearly as good as the feeling of getting a deal done.

One of the recommendations for contentious negotiations is to lay down some ground rules before trying to make further progress.   But the same advice can keep negotiations from becoming contentious in the first place.  Imagine a set of ground rules that describe etiquette, which you could provide at the very outset either in written form or verbally, that might include such things as:

  1. Objectives: The parties believe that a win-win outcome is the goal of these negotiations, and that the results should ideally support the parties in forming a long-term working relationship.
  2. Contract Drafting: Neither party will commence with drafting a contract, or will request a draft contract, until the parties have achieved a verbal agreement and reduced it to a terms sheet.
  3. Taking Turns: Each party is committed to the principal of taking turns in communicating and recognizes that listening as well as speaking will be necessary to achieve understanding and agreement.
  4. Counter-Proposals: Neither party will request that the other party make a counter-proposal to its own proposal.
  5. Policies: The parties commit to never using the simple existence of policy as a reason for doing a deal in a particular way, but rather, will refer only to the underlying rationale for any such relevant policies during negotiations.
  6. Agreement: Both parties recognize that contractual agreements arise from parties actually agreeing, and that extensive redlining of a draft contract may be used as a basis for returning to verbal negotiations.

This can begin the process of creating a common, deal-making culture between the parties.

Given the pervasive “need for speed,” many may see this as just a way to slow down the negotiation.  But the key thing to recognize is that for any two parties, they only need to do this once.  The time is an investment in bridging the cultural divide.

What do you think – based on your experience, what are the rules of etiquette we would need to establish as we work between Academia and Commerce?