“We partner them [universities] if they get it.”

This summary from James Spohrer, director of IBM University Programs World-Wide, at the Global 1000 conference organised by the National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer, was a recognition that some universities and regions are increasingly aware of the need to understand and work with corporate partners.

Universities are being disrupted by online courses, their funding is under pressure and the sources of revenues are changing and the responsibilities on them to educate, research and help local economies are increasing.

But while IBM has 500 people working on scouting 5,000 universities, most corporations assign a smaller proportion and number of people to look for the ideas and recruit the “T-shaped” people who can partner and help shape their futures.

(For more on IBM’s and Spohrer’s views, please check out this Global Corporate Venturing webinar from last year, and Sphorer will be hosting its T Summit event at IBM Research – Almaden, San Jose, CA on March 24-25, 2014.)

These corporate officers assigned to deal with private and public-funded academics said they despaired of universities that indiscriminately shot-gunned technology flyers round the country. While insiders, such as Ali Andalibi, associate vice-president for research at StonyBrook University, drily noted the “striking and palpable cultural differences at [technology transfer] agencies”.

A former programme manager at the US government’s National Science Foundation’s small business innovation research (SBIR) grants facility, Andalibi praised its focus on having domain experts reviewing and approving projects and forcing them through the phase IIb hurdle to understand the market needs.

But while this approach is logical and in-tune with latest trends towards lean start-ups and design-led solutions to market needs, there can be bloody fief wars preventing universities setting up a marketing-led approach to tech transfer.

However, desperation for money as the sequester hits public funding means corporations are finding it the best possible time to approach state universities to ask for exclusivity on licensing – even if this is potentially detrimental to longer-term success of the entrepreneurs and ecosystem.

Private sector universities, such as Stanford, have in general been far stronger in resisting these siren calls as they focus on their core mission statements of education and research quality first and leave the ecosystem to support the commercialisation afterwards.

But while the ecosystem around Stanford has developed over 70 years, other regions, such as the University of Oklahoma, have fewer financial services providers in their area, according to Cameron McCoy, its executive director of the corporate engagement office.

And knowing who and how to target the Global 1000 is a challenge due to corporate opacity about what they are looking for and who is responsible as their gatekeepers to allow external innovation, especially the “blast outs” of star professors that have raised a team and funding already, to come in.  

However, given the growth of corporate venturing, which is “the fastest growing venturing activity in the world” with more than $100bn in venturing assets, these departments, within the innovation team generally, are increasingly picking up the challenge.

It seems both sides are increasingly “getting it”. For others who want to, please come to our Global University Venturing Summit on October 16 in London.