The Strategic Role of University - Industry Liaison Offices.
Changing environmental demands and the increasing importance of science and technology have added a new dimension to the university's role in society: economic development through technological innovation and transfer. In recent years, a new administrative entity -- the university-industry liaison office -- has emerged as an important partner in this process. The university-industry liaison office has three main tasks: disseminating information about the university's research potential, developing partnerships among the university, business and industry, promoting "entrepreneur-ship" within the academic community.
This triple role allows the university-industry liaison office to have a major impact on the image and the reputation of the university. As university service to the community increases over the next decade, the importance of the university-industry liaison office also will grow. This article describes how a university-industry liaison office can enhance the contribution a modern university makes to the economy of the region, the nation and the world.
Fifty years ago, the university's role was restricted to research and training young people for a place in society. Nowadays, industry has a growing need for the specialized know-how, information and advice available from universities. As a result, universities are playing an active role in the process of technological innovation by licensing inventions and discoveries to industry. Spin-off companies, science parks and incubators are examples of the results of university-industry collaboration (Bok, 1982; Bullock, 1983; Stankiewicz, 1986; Wade, 1986).
Governments have encouraged such arrangements by including service to society and to the industrial world, along with the traditional objectives of education and research, as part of the mission of the university. In different countries, the law has been adapted in recent years to include this objective and to "officialize" the economic role of the university for the region and for society.
In return, industry has contributed to the research enterprise by helping to finance university research programs. Increased costs for scientific equipment and insufficient governmental funding have obliged universities to look to a variety of sources -- including industry -- for a new means of financing research.
The combination of university knowledge and industrial financial support has lead to innovation and the creation of new businesses, jobs and wealth. However, these outcomes are not always easy to obtain. Successful cooperation between industry and the university requires a special kind of synergy. To achieve a successful cooperation agreement, both parties need to be aware of each other's interests and objectives as well as each other's complementary strengths.
The following article describes how industry can benefit from various university services and analyzes some important characteristics of the innovation process. The importance of intermediary organizations and networks in the technology transfer process are described. External and internal marketing of R&D services, including the costs and potential value of the innovation process and the risks involved, also will be discussed in relationship to the strategic role of the university-industry liaison office.
Overview of University-Industry Interaction
In a knowledge-based society, access to information is critical. It is one of the most important services a university can provide to business and industry. University personnel can provide expert advice, help in conducting targeted experiments and laboratory work, and assistance in analyzing data. Institutions of higher education also can provide continuing education for industry personnel. In recent years, institutions of higher education have begun to directly contribute to the economy of the region surrounding the university through the process of technology transfer.
Technology transfer begins with industry and university interaction. According to Van Dierdonck and Debackere (1988), interaction between industry representatives and university faculty follows a predictable sequence. Initially, faculty members serve as consultants and assist with data analysis. At the next stage, industry may choose to license innovations developed by university personnel. Spin-off companies based on these innovations generally follow.
As the university becomes more involved in technology transfer, the establishment of a science park and an incubator for new technology-based start-up companies is a matter to be considered by university administrators and the university board of directors or trustees. The establishment of such entities reflects a university's commitment to the region's economy. The final step in the technology transfer sequence is the establishment of a venture capital fund, attached to, or managed by the university.
The above overview is not meant to imply that industry-university collaboration is an easy task. It presents a double challenge: working with people and working within the difficult discipline of innovation. Collaborative work between and among people has its trials, successes and failures. Although there are advantages to collaboration, barriers may arise to prevent cooperation.
Van Dierdonck and Debackere (1988) identify three types of barriers: cultural barriers (mutual incomprehension), institutional barriers (unclear norms and policies) and operational barriers (problems arising during the implementation of the project as result of rules, norms, etc.). These barriers can occur on both the industrial and university side of the collaboration. The differences in university and industry cultures are examined in the following section.
University vs. Industry Cultures
The culture and objectives of industry and higher education differ. The university scientist uses a long-term approach to research and is devoted to academic freedom and publication. Faculty members are typically concerned with tenure and promotion decisions and salary increases based on merit. In some academic departments, applied research may not be rewarded as much as teaching or basic research.
The benefit of collaborating with university researchers is fairly clear to business and industry. However, the industry culture emphasizes applied research, secrecy, protection through patents and typically employs a product-driven approach (Fassin, 1991).
It is important to recognize that technology transfer occurs when university faculty and representatives from business and industry work together for mutual gain. Therefore, industry-university collaboration cannot be forced and cultural differences must be understood. Table 1 presents a comparison of industry and university objectives.
As Table 1 implies, universities and industry work in two separate worlds driven by different objectives. Today, although universities and industry have begun to recognize how they can work together for mutual benefit, a problem still exists: industry does not recognize the university's potential, and the university does not know the exact needs of industry. This problem is due to a lack of information on both sides.
Traditionally, universities have been rather passive in this area, which has reinforced the image of the university as an "ivory tower." The transfer of information and university collaboration with industry has, in the past, often been the result of a fortuitous event, some accidental meeting between a professor and an industrial manager, often through alumni or private contacts.
Modern industry, however, has a track record of seeking information from marketers and R&D people to better understand the real needs of their customers. Therefore, industry has been willing to look for new ideas from suppliers and all potential sources of information, including university research laboratories. Many big companies have special officers to survey and to keep in contact with the university laboratories in their field of interest.
More recently, universities have begun to open themselves up to the outside environment. They have developed inventories of external services and catalogues of their research activities and potential. Special intermediary services now are being provided by industrial liaison offices and interface departments or transfer points (Hull, 1990; Kuhlmann, 1991).
The pattern of university and industry interaction has evolved over time. Today there is an increase in the number of contacts between universities and industry. However, for consulting and data analysis activities, the industrial company usually takes the initiative to contact the professor, and for licensing and spin-offs, it is more common for the university to be the initiating partner.
The Innovation Process
Innovation is important to industry. The aim of the business world is to create wealth. Innovation leads to new products, new markets and to commercial and financial success. It is worthwhile to identify the steps that must be taken to move from the point of a great idea to a commercial success and to study the multiple hurdles that must be overcome.
Most successful innovations begin with an inventor with an idea. The inventor then works to develop the idea into something practical, in his or her garage, company or scientific laboratory. Next, the inventor tests the practical application of the idea and hopes for positive results. Further work leads to the development of a prototype.
However, the work is not finished. The prototype seldom satisfies. The prototype must be refined, and further study often has to be undertaken to overcome technical problems. This phase is generally called the development phase.
The final result is a pre-industrial product that meets technical specifications. The next step is further engineering to reduce the production price of the product. This is generally done during the scaling up phase. Once the technical problems have been resolved, production costs are acceptable and marketing research gives a positive signal, the product is launched in the marketplace.
The innovation process involves many interactions and feedback loops. At each step the cost of the process increases, as does the value of the project, or at least the potential value of the potential innovation. It is not uncommon for costs to increase more than expected in each phase.
Even if the first test of an idea can be executed within a reasonable budget, as in the case of an innovation tested in a garage, the process of moving an innovation from prototype to pre-industrial product to the phase of up scaling grows increasingly expensive. Moreover, to launch a product successfully in the marketplace requires a large budget.
It is important to see this evolution in costs related to the phases of the project over time. Costs rise exponentially, and so does the potential value of the project. But the success of the launch is not yet guaranteed. The literature on innovation has proven that many new products are not always transformed into successful commercial successes, even if they are technically superb. The key to the commercial success of any innovation is marketing.
Thus, success depends on both the technological advantages of the product as well as the market's need for the product. It is good to have feedback from the market in the early phases of technology transfer, as the reaction of the market can lead to improvements and refinements that will increase the chances of the product's ultimate success.
The academic's tendency is to spend too much time in the laboratory tying to improve the prototype and find a perfect technical solution. Again, financial imperatives have to be considered, and time is an advantage in a competitive market. Continuing to improve the prototype will delay the launch, diminish the lead time and increase the risk that a competitor will be the first to market a similar product. It must be remembered that innovation does not stop with the launch. Continuous improvements lead to upgrades and a new time advantage to the competitors.
This means that the success of an innovation project can not be evaluated until the final step has been reached. At that time, the value of the project can be determined. The value of the project may have increased exponentially or decreased towards zero because of rejection by the marketplace. It takes a significant amount of time to go through the whole process; the time from idea to commercial success should not be underestimated.
The Role of the Inventor
It is clear that establishing the value of an innovative idea is a complex operation. Even the brightest idea, without appropriate technical development and marketing, has little or no chance of success. The inventor must be aware that even if they were present at the birth of the innovation, without the efforts of others with complementary competencies, their bright idea has little chance of evolving into a successful product.
Some inventors have difficulty accepting this fact. Even if their initial idea is the most important step in the whole process, the final success depends on other factors. With the technological evolution and the increasing interdependence of sciences, only exceptional individuals are able to take an idea to production by themselves.
It is sometimes difficult for academicians to accept that the technical development and marketing of their innovation is better left to specialists (with their assistance and support). It is also difficult for an inventor to accept that they will not receive all the credit or the biggest financial rewards. The industrialization phase and the marketing of a product are major financial undertakings that few individuals can assume. Thus, the business and industrial partners that bear these costs have a right to a larger share of the profits.
The same financial logic applies to the university's know-how and spin-offs. As the value of a project increases, more resources are required. Since the university only has limited resources, its involvement is primarily during the predevelopment and prototyping phases. This implies that the potential value of the product will be lower at the early stages than later stages of development.
The Role of the Industry-Liaison Office
The university's industry liaison office plays several important roles in the process of technology transfer: information broker, science marketer and catalyst for academic entrepreneurs. The goal of these activities is to give the university a dynamic, practice oriented and high-technology image. The entrepreneurial university contributes to the social and economic growth of the region it serves, a crucial role in the university's mission. The following section describes the specific contribution of the university-industry liaison office can make to this process.
Promoting University-Industry Interaction. Faculty members are organized in departments and colleges under broad academic areas. This structure makes it difficult for industry to identify someone with expertise in a particular area or someone to contact for help with a specific problem. Many universities have therefore established liaison offices to help outsiders navigate the university organization.
The role of the liaison office is to help people outside the university find one or more researchers with expertise in a specific area. Such information is centralized in the liaison office. The goal of the liaison office is to lower the entrance barrier for the external business world and to complement existing informal direct contacts between faculty and industrial representatives.
Thus, the role of the liaison office does not differ that much from the classic marketing manager's function. Marketing is about communication and information and bringing people together, i.e. creating linkages. However, the marketing of the university R&D services means marketing professional services (Kotler & Bloom, 1984). Therefore, the university-industry liaison office has a dual function: marketing outside the organization (the classical marketing), and marketing inside the organization.
External Marketing. The marketing of the university's research potential is a new area for marketing that has only been discovered recently. It can be called 'science marketing.' It is paradoxical that universities that offer marketing as a management discipline in their business schools have been one of the last organizations to adopt it for their own purposes. Science marketing reinforces the university's public image in the external world.
It is the responsibility of the liaison office to actively promote university services in the business community. This may include dissemination of brochures containing information on the university's research strengths and organizing visits by corporate customers to university research labs as a way of highlighting university capabilities and facilitating personal contact between university and industry representatives. Personal contact is important, and it is always better to demonstrate one's capabilities than to just talk about them.
During such meetings, industry representatives can learn what the university's capabilities are; at the same time, scientists can learn what interests business people. Discussion can lead to new areas of common interest that would not have been covered in a less personal conversation.
However, many people from business and industry still view the university as an ivory tower that focuses on basic research and teaching without a great deal of interest in practical matters such as applied research. The marketing challenge for university-industry liaison offices is to overcome this outdated perception.
Towards this end, liaison offices can launch special initiatives that bring the university closer to the industrial world. Meetings between scientists, financiers and industry representatives improve the chances of finding common interests.
Liaison offices should use every opportunity to promote the activities of the university and build a strong service image for the university with potential customers. Use of the press and other media can facilitate this process. Regular articles in various specialized periodicals and coverage on television can focus attention on the university's strengths. For many scientific discoveries that make the daily news, the press will be eager to interview a local researcher. In this sense, the university is a good product to sell.
Internal Marketing. The liaison office often has an even more difficult task than external marketing -- internal marketing. It is sometimes difficult to convince university professors that marketing their expertise is wise or necessary. Conversely, some professors have the idea that because they are the best in their field, they also are brilliant in marketing their research.
The solution is to convince faculty that the liaison office has something to offer. Unfortunately, most liaison officers are not known within the university community. Marketing the liaison office helps create an image for the office, stimulates awareness of the services provided and creates awareness among potential customers, i.e., the faculty.
To market the liaison office effectively, it is necessary to overcome two barriers: the ever-present university bureaucracy and the fact that a liaison office is not an academic unit -- which is a problem in a world where only an academic rank is valued. It is therefore important that a person who is known by everybody in the university and has an extensive network of contacts in and outside the university manage the liaison office.
The best marketing in business is a good success story. Similarly, the best internal marketing for the liaison office is a happy professor. It is not surprising that a university industry liaison officer in the United States was considered very successful and received a great deal of recognition when one of the university professors he had helped with a patent became a millionaire and started driving a Ferrari.
The Role of Intermediary Organizations and Networks
Creating a university-industry liaison office at the university does not ensure that the outside world will know the university exists, and promotion is a very expensive activity. Universities cannot afford big advertisement campaigns. Most liaison offices have a limited budget and resources. Therefore, they typically must look for creative solutions. A strategy of developing alliances may be very effective.
People in industry first will seek advice from people they know. They may consult colleagues within their organization, or they might make external contacts with known consultants. Other external sources include people involved in intermediary organizations such as professional federations as well as private or governmental brokers active in technology transfer. Contact persons within an industrial company also can act as intermediaries. In other cases, university alumni can provide an introduction or be the contact person.
It is important for the liaison officer to know of possible referrals, because they will be able to create a link with potential customers that have no other access to the scientific community. Such intermediaries act as a channel for the dissemination of information. They also forward requests to the liaison officer because they know they will receive an answer that can help their customer or contact.
There also is a broad scale of different organizations that operate as brokers in the process of technology transfer. These brokers may have private or governmental status (e.g. regional development agencies). Brokers have their own network of contacts. They have access to databanks and can supply all kinds of information including catalogues, periodicals, etc. They often are present at technology fairs. The kind of service varies from organization to organization, as does the remuneration.
Besides these official and private brokers, there are other organizations that can act as brokers (systematically or fortuitously). Potential brokers include industry federations, alumni associations, professional associations, the local Chamber of Commerce, as well as banks, ministry cabinets and embassies. In Europe, some federations and regional development agencies have recently broadened their scope of activities to include dissemination of information and promotion of innovation, thanks to European Community support. The probability of contact increases thanks to all these intermediary associations.
Promoting Technology Transfer
One should never underestimate the distance between invention and commercial success or forget that few inventions lead to the success of the professor with the Ferrari described above. The difficult path to success is represented in Figure 1, with two triangles, the one with the base on top, the other one with the base down. The first represents the laborious path from idea to innovative success. For every thousand ideas, only one hundred becomes a prototype, and only 10 survive to the technical and industrialization phase to become a product ready to be launched. Only one will ever become a commercial success.
Since the risks are higher in the early stages of technology transfer, it is not always easy to obtain the important "down payment." The liaison office can help in negotiating the best deal for the university. In many cases it will be a risk-sharing agreement with a royalty on future sales. In some cases -- depending on the resources and the evolution of the entrepreneurial spirit of the university -- it will be possible to take a higher risk and to participate in a spin-off company. The liaison office can take the initiative and help in writing the business plan.
The liaison officer also can advise researchers on intellectual property matters and patents (Ditzel, 1988) and assist the professor during negotiations with business and industry representatives. It is the liaison office's responsibility to defend the university's rights in negotiations with very experienced businessmen who may not always appreciate the university's commitment to knowledge dissemination. Besides assistance with marketing and negotiation, the liaison officer can facilitate the establishment of spin-off companies and research parks. Table 2 provides a comprehensive list of the activities of the university-industry liaison office.
Clearly, technology transfer is a risky business, and remains hard work. It requires patience. Here too, the liaison officer can provide an important service to the university community by conveying these truths to professors who possess unrealistic expectations. It is important that faculty members realize that making a successful business requires more than just a bright idea, and that success is often the result of the efforts of many people besides the inventor.
Similarly, there are many factors involved in profitable technology transfer. The university-industry liaison office clearly plays an important part in this process. The following strategies are associated with successful technology transfer programs.
A Pro-Active Strategy. Liaison officers should go and visit the business-industrial client, and not wait for the client to visit them, which is the classical approach of a bureaucracy. By making an on-site visit, the liaison officer can see the client's laboratories and obtain greater awareness of the lab's equipment and needs. More importantly, the liaison officer can meet the researchers who are working on projects. These researchers will then be able to put a face with the name of the liaison officer, and the liaison officer will no longer be an impersonal bureaucratic type somewhere in the administration building.
Networking. The liaison officer should build an internal network in the university organization. They should have at least one or two very close contacts with key people in every department. These people will keep them informed about what is happening in the department and, when necessary, encourage their colleagues to contact the liaison officer to report an invention.
As a result of networking, liaison officers often are the best-informed persons in the university. Furthermore, a well-informed liaison officer can facilitate collaboration among researchers working in different university laboratories. For example, if a researcher calls for advice, and the liaison officer gives the caller the name of a colleague in another department to contact, both researchers will be helped. By being helpful, the liaison officer adds value to the overall research enterprise.
Time Investment. It is impossible for the liaison officer to work for everybody at the same time. Liaison officers should be realistic and concentrate on no more than 10-20 projects at once. Select projects that will add value, and focus on professors who are willing to collaborate. Some professors already have a long tradition of working with industry. Within their area of interest, they may have better contacts than the liaison officer. Therefore, it is probably not necessary to invest a lot of time helping these faculty members. It may be a better use of the liaison officer's time to interact with young researchers with potential. These young researchers are the academic stars of tomorrow. Alliances with researchers that are in the early stages of their careers may prove useful when these individuals later become chairpersons and deans of academic units.
Training Programs. Although liaison officers cannot work for everyone simultaneously, it is possible for the liaison officer to develop training programs that are designed to benefit everyone. For example, the liaison office could sponsor a course on "entrepreneurship," or provide specific training sessions on patents, intellectual property, business planning, etc. If these opportunities are made available to the whole university community, the liaison officer will attract a broad constituency that is interested in obtaining information related to technology transfer. The liaison officer should plan to make follow-up visits to individuals attending these meetings.
Follow-Up. A good follow-up is necessary for all university-industry contacts that have been established by the liaison office. It is just human nature to forget to give decent feedback on the actions of others. Therefore, the liaison office should handle this service. If the liaison officer has given a name of a university researcher or laboratory to an industry representative, the liaison officer should follow up after one to two weeks.
If no action has been taken, the liaison officer should first contact the university laboratory and then the industrial partner. It may be that industry representatives have not been able to reach the researcher. The liaison officer can then offer to organize a meeting. It is important not to lose a potential customer who has already overcome the first barrier to collaboration by calling the university-industry liaison office.
After the initial meeting takes place, the liaison office should follow up again, one or two months later, first with the researcher, then with the industry representative. Follow-up will show the liaison officer cares about the potential project. It is also a way to learn how the customer is reacting to the service being provided by the university and if the researcher is comfortable with their role in the project. If problems are identified, the liaison officer can offer additional service and advice.
Collaboration and Alliances. Brokers can play an important role in encouraging technology transfer within their market segment. They can take the initiative to set up meetings, conferences, information sessions and visits to companies and laboratories. Collaboration between the liaison office and these brokers can lead to a win-win situation. For example, in organizing a visit to a lab for a group such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber can do an internal mailing inviting its members to a special event. Then, only the liaison officer has to organize the program within the university.
Commitment from the Top. As with every important initiative, support and commitment from the top management of the university is essential to the success of the liaison office. Towards this end, the board of the university should approve an internal policy for intellectual property rights and for technology transfer. The university should give guidelines and also set up the necessary infrastructure for the implementation of the policy; define how far it wants to go in the innovation process; and create an entrepreneurial climate and organizational flexibility necessary to support technology transfer activities. This information should be distributed to all university staff. As in many marketing communication programs, this message should be repeated and enhanced from time to time.
Liaison offices are generally very limited in resources and staff. They cannot handle all jobs nor do all the work. Moreover, because of the decentralized aspect of most universities and the culture of academic freedom, professors may not appreciate the intervention of university central office staff.
We can derive two lessons from this. First, interaction between the university's professors and liaison officers has to be voluntary. Faculty cannot be forced to work with liaison officers. To carry out their mission, liaison offices have to prove their usefulness to the university's faculty. This is best accomplished through action rather than words. For faculty, the value of the liaison office is related to the quality of the advice the office staff provides in the areas of marketing, technology, defense of property rights, etc., and by the quality of the contacts the liaison office staff can create. With their advice on the best strategy for technology transfer and assistance to professors in the negotiations with industry, liaison offices create added value.
The second lesson is that the liaison office must be promoted internally. Many faculty members have a negative view of the bureaucracy that typically surrounds a university's central administration. To succeed, the liaison office must counteract this image through internal marketing. This requires the commitment and support from the top management of the university.
Silicon Valley and Boston Route 128 are good examples of how technology transfer has mutually benefited industry and higher education. Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have all participated in this process. One of the best European examples is the Cambridge Science Park. More specialized examples also exist. The biotechnology firm, Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), has enhanced the image of the University of Ghent, which, as a result of its interaction with PGS, boasts biotech laboratories with an excellent worldwide reputation.
This type of reputation helps a university attract more research contracts, especially on the international scene, and indirectly, it helps the university attract students. It is usually the best students who are interested in a university with excellent laboratories. This undoubtedly gives the university a double financial advantage. However, it is not always possible to figure out the exact level of financial benefit.
The true impact of liaison offices on the technology transfer process also is difficult to measure quantitatively. The services provided by such offices tend to complement existing efforts. Moreover, the success of the liaison office is often the result of complex personal relationships that involve the whole scientific community.
In most European universities, liaison offices provide information, facilitate contact between and among university faculty and industry, and stimulate academic entrepreneurial behavior. Liaison officers provide advice, initiate the technology transfer process, help write business plans and help establish spin off companies and venture capital funds. The strategic value of the liaison office in European universities is increasing.
Successful universities in the 21st Century will have a center of gravity that is slightly oriented toward a new role: service to community. The ultimate criterion of success will be the quality of the service a university provides. With their triple role of information broker, science marketer and catalyst for academic entrepreneurship, university-liaison offices can help universities respond to this challenge.
Yves Fassin ("The Strategic Role of University Industry Liaison Office") holds a Master of Science in Engineering and a M.B.A. degree from the Vlerick Leuven Gent School voor Management, associated with the Universities of Gent and Leuven in Ghent, Belgium. He followed the Executive Program for Growing Companies at the Stanford Business School. He was director of the Industrial Liaison Office of the University of Ghent from 1981 to 1988 and Secretary-General of the European Venture Capital Association from 1988 to 1991. He is currently managing director of E.M.G., a metallic construction company, and serves on the board of some other SMEs. He was a part-time professor of technological innovation at the FUCAM, University of Mons and partner of the Vlerick School for Management. His research interests include innovation, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, venture capital and IPOs and business ethical issues in these fields.
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Table 1: Contradictions between Industry and University Objectives INDUSTRY UNIVERSITY New application New invention Added value Advancement of knowledge Financial New means for further research Applied research Basic research Short-term Long-term Product-driven To know how? What Why? Secrecy Free public good Protection / Patents Publication Commercial approach Academic freedom
The Role of the
University-Industry Liaison Office
Dissemination of information
Fielding inquiries from industry
Development and distribution of brochures
Promoting networking opportunities
Marketing and promotional activities
Organizing visits to laboratories
Participating in conferences, presentations
Participating in specialized technology fairs
Public relations activities
Networking with professional associations, etc.
Writing articles in periodicals and press
Promoting special events
Advice and help with negotiation of research contracts
Advising professors on intellectual property and patent issues
Helping with negotiations
Defining strategy for technology transfer
Active management of the valorization of the university potential
Searching for industrial partners
Searching for commercial partners
Searching for financial partners (venture capital funds, business angels)
Initiating spin off companies; helping with business plans
Coordination of the university research park
Coordination of the university incubator center
Coordination of the university seed capital fund