Giving a Business Twist to Academia

My role as a business development manager at University College London is to foster collaborations between industry and academics in one of UCL?s research centres. This means that, while endeavouring to satisfy the business aspirations of my constituents in systems engineering, I also report to the commercial arm of the college.

Part of my job involves getting outside the ivory tower to talk to people in industry. The aim is to find new opportunities to exploit UCL?s technology in an industrial context. When I talk to other organisations I am also looking for issues in systems engineering that are keeping them awake at night. I then bring these matters back to the college to see if we have any researchers with the expertise to tackle these challenges. What this adds up to is a two-way selling job--to industry, persuading them that UCL has something to offer, and to the academics, showing them that it?s worth their while to get involved with this work, especially when they are already juggling numerous other research and teaching activities.

Marketing and branding for UCL

Another aspect of my job is marketing and brand-building UCL in the area of systems engineering, which requires developing presentation material such as brochures and leaflets, designing and manning stands for exhibitions, and organising events to bring people to UCL.

Similar roles exist in industry, but working in an academic environment offers a lot more scope for you to set your own objectives and targets. The other side of the coin is that you are never quite sure what all the stakeholders in the organisation expect from you, making their expectations difficult to manage. For example, academics often have objectives other than the purely financial from their interactions with industry, and it?s my job to try to identify these and ensure that they are in some way met. The other main difference with industry is the emphasis on the two-way selling process.

I find this position very rewarding in that I get to meet very interesting academics as well as people at all levels in industry who are experts in fascinating fields of science and technology. Working at UCL also gives me the opportunity to study my area in more depth as I am currently researching a part-time PhD in technology management, due to be completed at the end of 2004.

As for the challenges I face through my job, they often have to do with the discrepancy between the interests of industrialists and academics, the first being preoccupied with short-term issues while the others are turned on by longer-term problems. Of course this is without mentioning my battle against a poor definition or understanding of systems engineering, which one day led one organisation to send me to the IT department!

I would say that in general this job would appeal to individuals who enjoy business and science, as well as meeting people. The job is also very much for someone who likes working outside of their comfort zone, as you will receive minimal direction and deal with subjects that are not always clearly defined!

Science, engineering, finance, sales, industry experience needed

To succeed in this role you will of course need to have a scientific or engineering background as well as a business one. It is crucial that you understand the technical content of the issues that are being discussed, let alone the field you are promoting, to talk credibly to both industrialists and academics. On the other hand, the business development tasks require, by nature, some finance activities, an understanding of how organisations work both internally and externally, as well as the ability to carry out effective sales and marketing. And to complement all this, some industrial experience is also required.

So how did I get there myself? After graduating from the University of Surrey with a BEng in electronic and electrical engineering in 1993, I worked at the Ministry of Defence?s research agency in Farnborough. During my time there, ?playing? with an F2 Tornado, I also studied for a part-time MBA at Surrey. I then followed a career in industry, working first for a commercial avionics firm and then more recently as an engineering manager for Ultra Electronics.

All through my career I spent a lot of time doing ?systems engineering?, although it was never really called that. When the position of business development manager came up at UCL it seemed like a perfect match as it offered me the opportunity to both follow my interest in systems engineering and develop the skills I had acquired while doing my MBA.

At UCL there are currently six business development managers funded by the UK Government through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) as part of its commitment to encourage universities to source ?third leg? funding from industry. I also know of two additional positions that are funded by other means. We all share our experience, work together on certain projects and events, and collectively build the brand of UCL within industry.

UCL are currently bidding for further funding under HEIF II for additional business development managers to complement the existing positions. As the Government seems set to further promote business activities within academia and the opening up of universities to industry, I would imagine that many more of these positions will become available in the future.

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