Seven Things You Should Know Before Partnering with a University

Seven Things You Should Know Before Partnering with a University

Over the past ten years, firms have looked increasingly to partnering with universities as a key element of their innovation strategics. After reducing R&D funding in their own organizations for three decades, firms now seek to outsource that role to universities.

By: Randall Wright, ILP Program Director

Firms have bought into the idea of "open innovation," and have established teams of "technology scouts" and "technology entrepreneurs" with lists of needs, ready to negotiate deals with universities. It all sounds good and makes sense to firms. Yet, the scout may have gotten off to a false start before leaving the company parking lot. Here are the seven things they need to know before heading out to partner with a university.

Adopt the Right Role: Don't Be a Customer­, Become a Student

Most open innovation efforts cast firms' representatives in the role of a customer. The firm has identified needs, and is looking to contract with a university to act in the corresponding role of supplier. But by assuming the role of customer, a firm's representatives will be off-the-track in their goal to innovate. To innovate, one must learn. But learning requires hard thinking. For most, hard thinking is burdensome.

The mindset of a customer is not predisposed to learning. Rather, it's programmed to follow the path of least resistance. Customers like to buy things, but also want something for nothing, to be waited on, a whole lot for little effort, and to follow the crowd.

While it may come as a surprise to some, the reason to go to a university is to learn. In fact, the reason the value of the stock market keeps rising over time is because people keep learning new things. Rather than adopting the role of a customer, if a firm wants to profit from engaging with universities, then its representatives need to take on the role of a scholar eager to learn. Shopping is easy, but learning is hard.

Enter the Discourse on campus

Universities are acknowledged to be the beating hearts of nearly all centers of innovation. Still, in my experience, firms often have little understanding of what makes universities great engines of innovation. Like a firm working to understand the inner workings of a foreign country in which it seeks to successfully pursue business, firms need to understand the inner workings of universities if they seek to successfully pursue relationships with them.

"Without discourse there would be no great universities, no innovation."

What firms need to know is that universities do only three things: they teach state-of-the-art coursework; they perform groundbreaking research; but the thing that makes this possible - the secret sauce - is discourse, the exchange of ideas and opinions. This discourse takes on many forms, from conferences and seminars, to scientific papers, to poster sessions, to informal conversations, to bumping into someone in the hallway and starting an unexpected exchange. Without discourse, there would be no great universities, no innovation.

For a firm to profit from its relationship with a university, it must enter the discourse on the campus - not as a customer, but as would a scholar seeking to develop a thesis.

Understand That Innovations are Arguments

Argument is discourse containing inference. All arguments can be stated in the form of a proposition (P) inferring a conclusion (Q): If P then Q. The discourse on campuses is argument because innovation is all about making inferences. Therefore, all innovations can be stated as arguments. The Ps are inventions, and the Qs are paradigms of empowerment. For example, Henry Ford said: (If) " a car for the great multitude (P)': .. (then) "Everyone will have one and everyone will own one. The horse will disappear from our highways, and we will give a large number of men employment at good wages (Q)." The aim of innovation is always to empower humans, whether that means the wheel, gunpowder, light bulb, personal computer, or democratic government. Humans want power. Power sells.

Forget Megatrends - Find and Follow Movements

In truth, no one at universities studies megatrends. The reason is that megatrends are like horoscopes - they sound inevitable because they are vague. But, like horoscopes, megatrends are too nebulous to serve as a basis to take meaningful action.

What actually happens is that someone invents something that alters fundamentally how people live - that is, enables a new paradigm of empowerment - and that invention, by inferring a paradigm of empowerment, becomes the argument for a movement that spreads virally. This is true of every meaningful invention from the telegraph to the automobile to the smartphone to mRNA vaccines.

Not all movements begin in universities, but today, many do. The movements of the Internet of Things and RFID began at MIT, and MIT Media Lab played no small part in the invention of netbooks that were the forerunners of smartphones and the communications movement they spawned.

MIT research scientist Peter Gloor studies these movements and finds that at their cores arc collaborative innovation networks - what he terms "COINS" - that are teams of self-motivated people who engage in a discourse containing inference, or create and discuss arguments, around a common paradigm of empowerment ("Q") by sharing ideas, information, and work. Members of a COIN have a shared context and shared values that allows them to communicate without words, through unconscious non-verbal signals, body language, and shared action. Consequently, executives that wish to join with members of the COIN need to be uncritical and genuinely appreciative in their behavior, and in some cases adopt the same shared morals, characteristics, and outlooks of the COIN's members, as would a scholar cager to learn by participating in the discourse. Hundreds of different COINs exist within the MIT /Kendall Square innovation ecosystem, each representing a unique vision to shape and change our lives. Firms need to seek out and engage with members of COINs to apprehend the potential consequences of proposed and new inventions to ultimately participate in the economic and societal movements they portend.

Leading academics are like Monet, whose palettes, instead of being paints, are mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, who see in science that which escapes the notice of others.

Faculty Members Are visionaries - They Do Not Do Benchwork

Impressionistic painter Claude Monet saw rays of light in his palette of colors that had escaped the notice of artists up to that point in time. While Monet was a painter, he was also an artistic visionary who participated with other impressionists in creating a movement in painting. Equally, leading academics are like Monet, whose palettes, instead of being paints, are mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, who see in science that which escapes the notice of others. They also are visionaries who participate in creating movements. For example, in 1938, MIT graduate student Claude Shannon saw in mathematics that which had, up to that point, escaped the notice of others, and laid the groundwork for the digital communications networks that now lace the earth.

Still, some firm representatives only see faculty members as experts to become craftsmen on their firm's "extended workbench." Monet may have been an expert painter, but he did not paint signs or ghost-paint masterpieces for others from their sketches. Faculty members and research scientists may possess expert insights and skills, but they do not do a firm's benchwork.

You Need to Do Reconnaissance

No aircraft carrier would be put to sea without reconnaissance pilots to bring intelligence of existential threats and opportunities the ship is sailing into back to its commanding officer. Equally, no business can afford not to conduct reconnaissance into innovation movements on university campuses if it hopes to survive and prosper. To do otherwise would be like the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier captaining his vessel as if it were a cruise ship. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab, has said, "The best vision is peripheral vision." Too often I see firms making investigations into "what's new" that are much too narrow. Reconnaissance needs to be broad into movements that, while seeming peripheral, stand to undermine a firm if it fails to pay heed. Firms need to have a small team of executives who regularly visit universities to learn what leading researchers are doing and reconstruct, debrief, and assess the importance of the arguments being made at academic institutions.

Get organized - You Need to Report to the CEO

Many years ago, I recall saying to the former CEO of a firm that was a member of MIT's Industrial Liaison Program that I thought the CTO of a firm should be visiting MIT, and not just its engineers. He replied: "Wrong. It should be the CEO who visits." By that, he meant the advancements at universities are of strategic importance to the firm - not just in supporting the firm's strategy, but to shaping a new strategy. Often, the difficulty firms have with university relationships stems from delegating the relationship to persons in the organization who do not report directly to their CEO. Strategies are dependent on means - and the advancements at universities not only create new means, but also change the character of markets. Firms' university reconnaissance teams need to report to their CEOs.

Firms, of course, will want to sponsor programs of research with universities for the purpose of acquiring and developing new capabilities. Knowing these seven things before heading out to visit will give your firm the best opportunity to partner successfully with a university.

This article originally appeared in InnoLead's Pointers e-book, May 2022