Open your mind to industry partnerships, and you never know where it might take you…
Kevin Schug |
As a young assistant professor, I would go to conferences and see presentations from well-established professors, detailing their work on the very best and newest instruments. I asked myself, “How can they possibly have their hands on a new instrument every time one comes out?” Of course, I quickly discovered that many of them have close relationships with instrument vendors, and those companies put the new instruments in their lab. Having access to the newest technology is a massive advantage in a field that’s evolving quickly, and I decided I needed to figure out a way to have that type of connection.
I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to do just that in 2012, when the University of Texas at Arlington and Shimadzu signed a major deal to create the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry. It was made possible by forward thinking, science-minded administrative officers at the university and, when we inked that first deal, it was a game-changer. All of a sudden, we were working with all the latest, greatest and most sensitive instruments – it was instant credibility.
Now, my lab operates almost entirely on what I call non-traditional funding – industry deals and private donations. We work with instrument makers and consumable suppliers like Restek and VUV Analytics, oil and water companies, environmental groups, and others. Industry partnerships have also helped us to break into new and interesting avenues. Soon after the Shimadzu partnership was established, we started looking at environmental analysis. The company has an interest in the area, so they were able to suggest instrumentation to try, and provide additional instruments to support the work. Half of our research now is in the environmental analysis realm, and two million dollars in funding later, we’re leaders in measuring and mitigating the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction.
If you would like to bring industry funding into your lab, my first piece of advice is that you have to be flexible. I’ve often heard colleagues say, “Why would anybody want to give me money to do what I’m doing?” And to that I would reply that you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone. A company most likely won’t be interested in exactly what you’re doing – you need to find out what their problems are, and see how your expertise can solve them. At the start of the conversation, it should be about what they need, and less about you. If you find after some discussion that you can meet in the middle, then that’s the best of both worlds. Simply going to an industry partner and telling them what you can do, without asking what they need, is not going to be nearly as fruitful.
You have to be open, and embrace the notion that you need to actively seek out these opportunities. Scientists aren’t necessarily the most outgoing people, but you have to put effort into making the initial contact and building the relationship. You need to talk to the right people in the company, and establish a relationship. Spend some time at conferences talking with people from companies and look for a good synergy. If both sides are pulling forward and interested, the collaboration will get off to a good start.
One collaboration often leads to another. On the oil and gas side, we started working with Apache Corporation to assess environmental impacts in West Texas. Since we started working with them, we’ve been contacted by several different water supply companies that want us to test water quality. We would never have got into water quality research at all if our university hadn’t partnered with Shimadzu back in 2012...