What's next to drive innovation and digital transformation in a corporate aside from innovative sharing, hackathon, pitch event, innovation bootcamp, corporate VC, innovation center set-up? Collaborating with university and institution might be one.
As much as we know that universities have talents, tech and research, educational resources, and more, it is a very difficult entity to work with. Every university may have a different environment with complicated internal stakeholders. The collaboration may fail any time before you figure out who to talk to, from which department, for what reason, and what’s their KPIs. The things that we feel normal in the business world are not necessarily true in the university setup.
How to generate enough interest for corporate and university to engage with each other and reach a win-win collaboration?
Corporates are running for business impacts, and usually have very specific goals entering the conversation. It could be to strengthen the relationship with academia, reach out to the talents, develop the technology for future products, raise the brand awareness, get involved with the ecosystem… Universities, on the other side, cares most about education. There are different labs, ongoing researches from different departments or led by different professors. By the end of the day, the universities are running an educational organization, which might be neglected by the corporates and result in a broken conversation.
Some corporate tries to use the corporate brand, history, and money to convince that working with them will eventually benefit the school for sure. Yet the schools are often cautious about the collaboration until getting a clearer picture of the goal. The assumption that the school and students would be interested in university-MNC collaboration projects simply because of the brand is mistaken. For universities, especially the good universities in China nowadays, a big name is no longer the thing. There are companies, including the new Chinese giants, approaching universities on daily basis, pitching themselves. What universities really want to see is what value you can bring to the students, the faculties, or the school’s eco-system.
Presenting the goal and getting aligned as early as possible is the key to a sweet relationship.
Once the goal is set and aligned, talking to the right people will speed the collaboration. Corporate has different stakeholders for different goals, HR initiatives for talent recruitment, innovation lead for new tech and marketing for brand strengthening, etc. Similarly, the universities are complicated because different stakeholders have totally different sets of KPIs.
It is important to figure out who you are talking to, what’s on their agenda, and what will be the things they want most. For corporates, you probably need a gate keep, be it from the university or a 3rd party partner, to have enough patience to understand the university, navigate the internal systems, and identify the stakeholders.
When it comes to technology, corporates shall find out who owns the technology in the university and how to work with them. Commercialization is usually not a concern at the school level, but the professor or lab who owns the technology might have a different perspective and have an entrepreneurial mindset. We see that the younger-generation professors are keener to work with industries and outside the organization, seeking opportunities to commercialize their research.
Universities are very cautious with the external collaboration especially in the technology domains. They want to see where the boundary is upfront. Should the corporate give out full details and how transparent should you be? At the beginning of the conversation, if you will not give out the tech request details, check alternatively if you could give a specific direction or a brief about the application or scenario, or what business goal you are trying to achieve and in what kind of setup/environment. This helps the university to understand your goal and find the right stakeholder to follow up.
Collaboration is based on trust, and building trust takes time. When corporates find it challenging to build up relationship with university on regular touching points, one possibility is to leverage a middleman to bridge. Incubator/accelerator is an active party working with both in the innovation ecosystem. It would be naturally hard for the two parties to build trust with each other, but relatively easy to build trust with a 3rd party incubation platform that they have already worked with. Through incubator, the goal is to align the two parties on the same page quickly with transparent communication. Don’t play the round-and-round strategy. Put everyone’s KPI on the table and let each other know what I want from this collaboration, and in return what you can get.
Corporates often want to see things happen as soon as possible, while the decision making process in the university is often slow. On one hand, the proper expectation of timing needs to be set for corporates. The collaboration with school will not be like working with startups. On the other hand, there are ways to push for a faster move. Instead of waiting for the school’s planning, you can create a concrete plan and process for your stakeholder to review. You take the initiative and do the work. Let the university to give it a go. If it’s not working, revise a new version and iterate, ultimately you could reach a solid agreement.
Some corporates have good relationship with universities and can speed up with its own resources. If not, considering a 3rd party to facilitate the conversation at the beginning is not a bad idea.
The success of collaboration goes back to the initial goals. While corporate and university may have different measurement for the success, it’s good to address to all goals separately. The more satisfaction, the longer such collaboration will continue. For venture building from a university tech, the success rate is similar to a startup company’s survival rate. A lot of factors may affect the outcome, not just from the school side, but also due to corporate strategy, structure, and decision. One complimentary achievement can be educating the corporate of open collaboration, seeking new ways of lead-generating ideas, and bringing them forward.
XNode is building the leading Chinese platform for global innovation. We help innovators light the spark of innovation and bring the possibility into reality. We facilitate the corporate-university collaboration through venture building, Hackathon and entrepreneurial events, and creativity/design collaboration projects. Contact us for university related collaboration, email@example.com .
Lei is the Corporate Innovation Director at XNode, where he leads the Corporate Innovation team to help big corporates build their innovation capabilities, including establishing corporate innovation strategies, creating internal innovation acceleration programs, and collaborating with external startups and scaleups to forge innovation ecosystems.