Universities can build relationships with industry by inviting people to networking events

Published On: 22 March 2022|

The first session of the two-day Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) on Commercialisation of Research, held in Cape Town last week – featured two speakers from abroad.

The first was Mr Tom Hockaday, director of the consultancy Technology Transfer Innovation, and a former CEO of Oxford University’s Innovation Consultancy from 2006 until March 2016. He spoke virtually from the town of Oxford in the UK.

The second speaker was Dr Martin Hinoul, former Business Development Manager and now advisor at the university KU Leuven in Belgium. He also spoke virtually from Leuven.

The ELW, attended by senior executives in South Africa’s public universities, including deputy vice-chancellors, is an annual event hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education programme (EDHE).

This session, titled Setting the scene & building on an understanding around commercialisation of research, was followed by a Q&A session, facilitated by entrepreneur and University of Pretoria B Comm graduate, Mr Nolo Mokoena.

This is an edited version of the discussion:

QUESTION from Dr Andrew Bailey (above), University of Cape Town’s Senior Manager: Innovation: “Tom (Hockaday), the point you made about relationships and deals happening with people that you know, how do you establish those relationships? What good forums do technology transfer people use to engage with industry and develop the relationships? Perhaps your tech transfer team have had industry working experience? In our local environment, many don’t necessarily have that experience.”

ANSWER from Mr Tom Hockaday (below): “Ideally technology transfer staff need industry experience, partly for this networking aspect, but also so they understand the motivations and drivers and objectives of industry and know the culture.

“But if they don’t have that, then the next step is that the people in the university are good communicators, good networkers, passionate about their university’s capabilities, and they’re able to sell it. Universities have amazing convening power, which they often don’t realize, but if universities invite people to something, they usually come.

“In short, the answer is to have parties, to invite people to parties. Now you probably don’t want to call them parties because that’s inappropriate. So, you call them professional networking events or whatever. In Oxford in 1990, before my time, they set up the Oxford Innovation Society, which is still going and it’s a formal network, which provides a framework for the university to invite anyone it wants. In practice, this means anybody in the innovation community – locally, regionally, nationally, internationally.

“So, if the technology transfer staff don’t have actual experience of working in industry, what you need is the ability to chat to people and make friends and to do networking from a business perspective.”

ANSWER from Dr Martin Hinoul (above): “In 1998, when I came back to Leuven from Washington there was no network at all, zero. You had the academics. You had the financial world. You had the industry. But there was no connection at all. So, I felt miserable. I took the train to Cambridge and watched that Cambridge network. And the first night I was there, there was an event in a tent. I don’t remember what the discussion was about, but I met all the top people from Cambridge, from the venture capitalists to the rector.

“This was good. This was the Cambridge network. So, I came back to Leuven and I copied that network 200%. We needed the network.”

QUESTION: It was mentioned there was resistance. How long did it take the university to get the buy-in of academics into the whole commercialisation of research?

ANSWER from Dr Martin Hinoul: “For a lot of them, it’s still not working. It’s still not good to make money. There are always a couple of negative guys. But thanks to the role models (successes) it took about two to three to four years, not so long.

“We wrote a couple of papers in Leuven where we show clearly that the guys with top research can have top patents. This was new, new, new, so we proved that it could be done. And that took a couple of years.

“A lot depends on your rector. Ours was a strong guy who said, “We are going forward. We will not retreat on our steps. No way, no way, no way’. So, the rector is a key person.

“You also have to prove that both things can go together – top research and top valorisation/ commercialisation, which is good for everybody when a lot of money comes in.”

ANSWER from Tom Hockaday: “The University of Oxford was founded in about 1200. So, it took about 800 years to get the buy-in of the academic community because the university only set up its technology transfer office in 1987.

“But more seriously, the first 10 years was very, very slow. Remember, this was 30 years ago, the world was a different place, the culture was different. But it does take time and the approach we took was to work with the ones who wanted to work with us. I think that’s the sort of consensual approach you need.  It’s not good to force academics. Well, it doesn’t work. But you can encourage them, and you can incentivise them with financial but more importantly, non-financial incentives. Work with the ones who want to work with you initially, and you gradually build up support and you change the culture.”

ANSWER from Dr Martin Hinoul: “You need five years to get some critical research at your universities. You need 10 years to see your first good startups and patents. And you need 20 years to see the knowledge economy in your region and to have large, fantastic, good companies.”

COMMENT from Professor Eugene Cloete (above), Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at Stellenbosch University: 

“We learned from both Tom and Martin’s models and have applied those principles. They talked about using people who want to take part. I refer to it as the coalition of the willing – work with people who want to, and you will create momentum in that respect.

“In terms of networking, we own our technology transfer office as a spin-out company called Innovus. And we invited industry captains and very successful entrepreneurs to serve on its board. So, they see the ideas and patents and can invest first. They’ve got the right to first-refusal, but that is a very strong connection with industry. And over the past six to seven years, we have started to build the momentum Tom and Martin have spoken about.

“Thanks for your contributions. We are here to learn and we’ve learned quite a big deal over the past hour or so.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.