Initial thoughts on collaboration with the industry

6 minute read

I another blog post, I wrote how hard 2019 was to me, in terms of my role as an academic in a place that does not seem to value much the work that I do. In this current scenario, it is becoming increasingly hard to keep working on our traditional research agenda, due to many reasons, including: lack of funding, lack of students interested in joining grad school, lack of recognition, etc.

In this context, it is clear to me that, if I intend to keep working on my research agenda (to some extend at least), I have to find other ways to fund my work (and, consequently, my students). “Why not collaborating with the industry?”, they say.

I have seem many papers about academic-industrial collaborations, and I have also seen some colleagues in other universities doing very well because of these collaborations. Most intriguing, I have graduated in a university that is really known for collaborating a lot with big industry players. Sadly, I had no clue on how to start on this.

During the last few months, some colleagues and I have started to look for collaborations with industry patterns. I have been visiting many local companies, and talked with some decision-making people. Coming from an academic background, with very little industry-related research, it has been a challenge to me to understand their real needs and trying to find a way to get involved with them. In this blog post I try to summarize some of the lessons I learned thought out these months.

From the very beginning: how could I find decision-making people, who are always super busy, willing to talk about an eventual collaboration with this unknown professor? Here I had some luck because I happen to work in the same city that I grew up. So eventually, many old colleagues of mine are now playing decision-making roles. I updated my LinkedIn and started to look what my old peers were doing. For some of them, I sent a “hello, long time no see” message through the LinkedIn chat. I also sent some random messages (through LinkedIn and email) to other decision-making people (unknown to me), introducing me and asking for a meeting. I had some responses for the people that are already in my contact (not all of them), but I think I did not receive any response from those that are not on my contact list. This is clearly a problem for those that do not have any close contact with decision-making people.

For those that answered my message, I did not have much problem scheduling a meeting. But in this point, I started to wonder what I would propose to them? Just asking for money to do research does not sound a good strategy. I knew I had to propose something concrete to them. I then started to search for what kind of work do their companies do, what are their clients, etc. Since software engineering is my research area, and knowing that the company does a lot of, say, mobile development, I could perhaps argue that we could improve productivity or time to market by using strategies x, y, or z. However, although I still think that it is a good approach to look for their clients to see what do they do, it is a kind of unconvincing for me, as an academic, to suggest to technical people that they should do/use other technical stuff. I perhaps could indeed help them, but suggesting this in the very first meeting, when none of them knows me, sounds a bit arrogant at best.

Some years ago, we proposed something called Rapid Reviews, in which a researcher goes to a company, talks to representative people, and tries to grasp what are the problems they are facing (and eventually come up with an evidence-based solution to them). I thought a lot about doing a rapid review within these companies. But I also found a bit awkward to go to a meeting without any clear problem to discuss, and, in the meeting, propose to a research-like work, to only after that have something concrete to say. Decision-making people may be just too busy to hear about rapid reviews, I thought.

In Brazil we also have this “Informatic Law” in which companies could destinate part of their taxes to invest in R&D. Unfortunately, this law is not yet crystal clear to me, and I found strange to propose something that I do not fully understand.

So my decision was to go to the meetings pretty much to introduce myself, meet representative people, try to grasp their problems, and go home to think about how I could help them.

I found two interesting things in this process: first, when someone invite you for a meeting, they do want you there. These are very busy people, and they would not waste their time with you if you could not provide any valuable asset for them. Second, and perhaps most surprisingly, some decision-making people are eager to collaborate with academics. I heard from two business patterns that they already searched for collaborations within the university by themselves, but did not have any response. One of them also told me that he wants to do a donation to the university because he did not find a way to collaborate with them.

But sometimes the meetings were not that easy. Once a representative member receive me, asked me to take a seat, and then asked: how could I help you?. I was not expecting that question right upfront, and it really intimidated me. I did not have any straightforward answer to this question, so I may have said a lot of nonsense. In the end I said that I was looking for a way to fund students. He then said that his company is having a hard time trying to hire good people.

That was a good sign for me.

If this guy is having a hard time trying to hire people, other companies are also having the same problem. The problem is not only salary. This is cultural. I live in a city in the heart of Amazon, the rain forest, very far from the big cities (São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro). Many employees leave because they look for other challenges in other places/countries. These people are having a hard time to find new skilled employees. Where are these people? ….. Obviously, in the university! I am a professor. I have many, many students every year. These students want to work for companies. Bingo.

After I have this realization, I finally have a way to approach decision-making people in our local software companies. I know that you are having a hard time to hire good developers. You know what, if you could offload one small, non-risky project to the university, I could supervise some students that would work with the same methods and technology that you use in your company. After 1–2 years, these students would be ready to join your company. I remember one business man saying that this “sounds like music to me”.

This understanding was good to keep the door open for collaborations, but I soon realized that this was not enough to “sign a paper”. Another common problem that I realized is that many of these companies are having problems to use/integrate different software systems. So then “integrating systems/databases” also became a recurring topic in the meetings. This integration process naturally evolved to data mining and analytics. And here we finally arrived in the research arena. Although python+pandas are readily available and pretty easy to use, somehow decision-making people believes that academics are best ones to do this job.

After many months trying to establish collaborations with industry patterns, perhaps the most important lesson learned to me is that, before finding the problem to work together, you should find a reason to “keep the door open”.