Voices from Experts Voices from Experts: Silvia Vecchi
In conversation with Engagement Readiness Monitor partners, Silvia Vecchi offered her insights on university-business collaboration readiness and contributed her valuable knowledge on the topic.
Silvia Vecchi is the University-Business Collaboration Office head at the University of Bologna’s Research and Third Mission division. She promotes university-industry relations to enhance and diversify collaborations, improving their quality and quantity through a multidisciplinary approach.
Furthermore, she cooperated with the European Commission as an independent expert for evaluating research and innovation projects on different subjects (energy efficiency, ambient assisted living) involving research institutions, companies, and SMEs.
What does it mean to be ready to engage?
Readiness means having the essential operative tools and the crucial human resources. There has to be a structured interface that enables engagement between university and business, a legal framework and collaboration models that suit business needs. Human resources, both professional figures inside the institution and professors, have to be educated for collaboration.
A culture for cooperation within the whole university is crucial. It guarantees both the engagement of the professors and new stimuli for education and research. It is necessary a forma mentis that goes beyond the idea that UBC is something non-relevant from an academic point of view and thus a loss of time. Sometimes, there is a hidden thought that collaborating with business means that academics subjugate themselves to the market. This does not happen with other societal actors: they are seen as nearer to the university mission thanks to their not-for-profit nature.
What are the most common ways in which collaboration commences at your institution?
The main institutional motivation for engagement is to strengthen the impact of the first and second missions of the university. For this reason, universities look at business for opportunities to collaborate for education, research, and corporate training (a sector whose importance grows day by day and tends to evolve in other forms of collaboration too).
The most common ways universities and businesses collaborate for educational purposes (and for which they are already ready) are internships and seminars. However, collaboration for education is evolving: other ways are not fully exploited or are not explored yet. Nowadays, there is the trend to propose business challenges as part of a teaching class, and include external actors into co-designed education programs, to provide specifications on the needed competences and, in some cases, to contribute as teachers. Universities are not fully ready for these “deep contamination” in education but are working to reach them.
Professors are more motivated to collaborate for research both to raise funds (directly from the business, or indirectly, through joint participation in competitive funding programmes) and to validate their research through real-world application. Universities are readier for calls and consultancies, while they miss many opportunities in PhD research due to a lack of awareness about its value by companies.
From the business perspective, companies are interested in engaging with universities mainly for two reasons: they seek new talents to be hired, and (advanced) solutions to their technical issues, so they recruit students through internships and thesis, and they propose sponsored research projects.
It is important to consider that engagement does not easily occur. Universities and businesses have to be aware of the possible inhibitors to engagement. Often there is a misalignment in timing and expectations: the amount of time required to 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 what the business needs. Other times companies ask universities to develop “research” projects when they just need an engineering consultancy. Collaboration could also fail because business asks the wrong interlocutor within the university, and the university fails to redirect business to the correct entry point.
Which resources and strategies can a university have in place to better prepare to engage with businesses?
Universities need collaboration models that are flexible enough to suit the different collaboration scenarios. They have to pursue strategies that push long-term relationships (strategic partnerships) through the definition of shared goals, defined leadership and flexible contractual models that suit each collaboration need. The contractual templates 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 different levels: students can be involved through open innovation initiatives; academics’ entrepreneurial interest can be encouraged with a broader focus than just business engagement; IP policies can be developed and tested to fit academic’s and business’ needs better; corporate training models can be defined with a tailor-made perspective, especially in technical and technological fields.
The availability of physical spaces in which universities and businesses can work together is a resource that is often underestimated. These spaces allow contamination and cross-fertilisation.
Lastly, an aspect whose importance’s awareness is growing is the communication strategy. Some European universities are setting specifically targeted communication channels and contents that boost third mission activities and business collaboration.
Blog editors: Alexandra Zinovyeva (UIIN) and Fleur Schellekens (UIIN)
Header photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash