University-Business Engagement through the lens of a large university

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For a large university such as the University of Bologna (UNIBO), readiness means having the essential operational tools and the crucial human resources. There must be a structured interface that enables engagement between university and businesses, a legal framework and collaboration models that suit business needs. Moreover, human resources within the university itself, both professionals and faculty, must be educated for collaboration.

Nowadays, a culture of cooperation within the university is necessary to guarantee good university business collaboration (UBC) engagement rates with external stakeholders. A new mindset that goes beyond the simple idea that UBC is necessary but not always relevant from an academic point of view, and therefore perceived as a waste of time.

Motivation for engagement for a university is still driven by impact of the first and second missions of the university, these being research and education. For this reason, universities look at businesses for opportunities to collaborate in education, research, and corporate training (a sector where we see a significant increase that often turns into other types of collaboration too).

It is important to consider that engagement does not occur easily. Universities and businesses must be aware of the possible inhibitors to engagement. Often there is a misalignment in timing and expectations: the amount of time required for a university to reach the goal or just to organise the project is different from the business one; the technology readiness level of the university research/solutions is not always up to business needs. Sometimes companies ask universities to develop “research” projects when they just need a good engineering consultancy. From experience, collaboration could also fail early if a business contacts the wrong intermediary within the university, and the university fails to redirect them to the correct partner agent. This is the main reason spanning agents such as UBC officers are crucial.

Universities need collaboration models that are flexible enough to suit the different scenarios and the different business types (large companies, medium and small enterprises). They must pursue strategies that push long-term relationships (strategic partnerships) through shared goals, defined leadership and flexible contractual models that suit different collaboration needs. Particularly with some types of businesses, the contractual frameworks should consider the trade-off between public universities’ restrictions and the business’ needs.

There are many activities that a university can promote to enhance engagement at various levels: student involvement through open innovation initiatives; support to academics’ entrepreneurial interest with a broader focus than just business engagement; definition of institutional incentives for UBC, definition of IP policies able to fit both university and business needs; definition of tailor-made corporate training models, especially in technical and technological fields.

The availability of physical spaces in which universities and businesses can work together, share activities, and get to know each other, is a resource that is often underestimated. These spaces allow interaction and cross-fertilisation. Last, but not least, a good communications strategy is essential. Some European universities are setting targeted communication channels and content that boosts UBC activities and are seeing particularly positive results in terms of impact.

By Silvia Vecchi
Head of the University-Business Collaboration Unit, University of Bologna

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