A perplexing beast: the entrepreneur’s guide to a university
For the entrepreneur, a university can be a treasure-house of new knowledge and skills that are just waiting for commercial application. But it can also be a perplexing beast, large, looking in several directions at once and driven by forces quite alien to business. If you’ve ever wondered how to make the beast work for you, here are my five steps to success.
1. Be clear what you want
Are you looking to chat with that professor who made the intriguing presentation to a conference last month? Or do you want to find the best student in robotics to come on a placement with you for a year? Do you want to test your prototype in those impressive labs? Or perhaps you want a partner in a funding bid for collaborative R&D?
Whether it’s an expert opinion, a willing pair of hands or some systematic work on a challenging problem, there are many options, and it’s best to clarify your thoughts in advance. Ask what’s the level of input, the scale of the task – and of course your budget. And be prepared to change your mind!
2. Find the door
Universities do not have call centres, or menus of options to guide you to the right department and even this can be a challenge, since there can be many points of entry. You can usually approach a known contact directly, and if you’re lucky there may also be a helpful gateway for people like yourself, clearly signposted, that can advise and make sure your contact is followed through. However you should expect to spend some time on this stage, and persevere to find the best contact.
3. Know the motivation
Why would a university want to work with you? In fact, there are many potential reasons, and it helps to understand the basics. Broadly, a university is driven by two needs – to attract good students and to carry out excellent research. The student experience is enhanced by links with innovative companies, and by lecturers who are engaged with the latest developments in their field. Research is no longer an activity solely for the ivory tower; it must have impact, whether that’s in curing disease or helping economic growth.
As an individual, the professor you are dealing with will want case studies for teaching, material for research papers, opportunities to test ideas in practice – not to mention a welcome break from the lecture theatre or laboratory! Bear in mind that there may be little structure for ‘command and control’; academic staff have considerable autonomy in deciding what to work on.
4. Light the spark
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that in the end it’s all about people. Can you find that point of personal connection, the shared enthusiasm for a challenge? Lighting the spark of a good relationship is often the key to finding a route to success.
5. Follow the money
To acquire serious input from a top expert is naturally not without a price; a university may be a non-profit body, but it’s expected to realise a ‘fair and reasonable’ return from its resources. However, there are many ways in which the entrepreneurial user can find support at modest cost: student projects apply bright young minds to a real-world problem, and no money changes hands. Or consider KTPs, which attract government funds worth £50,000 per annum for an innovation project, and lead to an average increase in annual profit of more than £1 million. A university will have opportunities for funding from sources you probably haven’t thought of, so it’s always worthwhile to ask.
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