Universities need to change tack to succeed in industry

Account managers are key to partnerships between academics and business, conference hears. Hannah Fearn reports

June 15, 2009

Universities should behave like businesses and appoint “account managers” to negotiate partnerships between academics and industry, a conference has heard.

Liz Flint, business development manager at Aberystwyth University, told delegates at the Unico annual conference that the multitude of approaches universities take to working with outside partners was confusing for the business world. She said the process should be streamlined.

“We should be assigning an account manager to every relationship with a company,” said Ms Flint, who chaired a session on relationship management. “The academic can still have the technical relationship, but the technology transfer office should be ensuring that lots of connections at different levels between the university and the business are made.

“At the moment, there are a variety of approaches,” she said. “We need to think about the language we use when we describe what we do and what we should do. We have a responsibility to talk the language of business but also the language of academics. Our role is the classic middleman. All these interactions are going on, but the important thing is that people keep the university in the loop.”

Other speakers disagreed. Douglas Robertson, director of business development and regional affairs at Newcastle University, said there had been a rise in the number of specialist relationship managers employed by universities over the past ten years and that the number would rise further as funders put greater emphasis on increasing the economic impact of university research. But he added: “The relationship the company normally wants is with the quality researcher, not with their corporate relations office.”

Dr Robertson said personal relationships matter in partnerships between universities and business, and encouraged a “share all” culture to foster trust. But he said the pace of corporate and university life made these relationships challenging to sustain.

Simon Bradley, vice-president of EADS Innovation Works, said barriers were still holding businesses back from partnering with universities. He said universities had “a bit of growing to do” in accepting that more research should be applied.

“It’s a lot easier [to partner] in the US than it is in the UK because the US is used to dealing with large companies and creating framework agreements. With some UK universities, every time we want to do a project we have to go through the contractual process.”

His advice was to set out an agreement tying up all legal and contractual issues at the start. “Don’t be afraid to deal with the pain upfront,” he said. “Every project from then on is subject to the terms of that and it makes everything so much easier. All of that is dealt with in one go. Most large companies are looking for a long-term relationship, not just doing one project and seeing how it goes.”


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