Lessons Learned: Engaging Alumni for Research Commercialization

jtestai /  Oct. 26, 2021


Many academic institutions want to enlist alumni to optimize their research commercialization efforts – whether it is to judge a pitch competition, discuss licensing opportunities, share entrepreneurial journeys with students, or even donate to a new venture or proof-of-concept fund. But what are the best practices in this area? We interviewed 7 universities and academic programs about their interactions in engaging alumni for research commercialization.  The individuals we interviewed at each organization had different roles within the research commercialization process – some were consultants, directors of incubators, or in new ventures, licensing, and corporate engagement offices.

Through these great conversations, a common thread emerged. Most universities initially interacted with their alumni by leveraging existing programs or resources while simultaneously learning best practices and pain points. They would then utilize these lessons to optimize these initiatives to the benefit of all. Luckily for us, these universities were more than happy to share some of the lessons they learned.

What types of programs were these universities leveraging?

These programs range from internal to external facing resources. Rutgers Corporate Engagement Center has a Director of Business Development and Corporate Intelligence who among other things collaborates with the licensing managers by developing business leads via alumni connections interested in helping their companies and alma mater form partnerships. The Director identifies alumni, initiates introductions to develop business connections, and then brings in the licensing manager to discuss specific technologies. University of Notre Dame leverages programming that connects entrepreneurial MBA and ESTEEM students to startups based on faculty technology and leverages alumni to act as advisors to these companies.

Another program, Alumni Labs, is a startup studio model that connects alumni that have an innovation idea to a team comprising of commercialization professionals, advisors, and students to develop and launch the innovation. The CITRIS Foundry, an incubator that supports teams from the four UC campuses that house the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS), found that offering alumni communication and marketing support – something as simple as highlighting alumni’s accomplishments and successes in their newsletter – helped keep alumni in the loop with CITRIS to eventually give back in the form of mentorship and programmatic support. University of Michigan has been engaging alumni and corporations to raise, through philanthropy, the Accelerate Blue Fund to invest in their early-stage U-M licensed startups. To date, they have successfully raised $2.5M dollars towards their goal of establishing a $20M evergreen fund. These are just a few examples.

Knowledge Transfer and Communication

Several best practices emerged from these discussions. First, the interviewed institutions were interacting with their development colleagues based on a joint “plan” – some interacted only if they needed to ask alumni for financial gifts while others interacted with the development team for every initial contact with an alumnus. One topic that emerged from most conversations was database management. The research commercialization arm had a different database than the development office, and with a few exceptions, there was an inability to streamline data sharing between departments. The research commercialization team reported to the development team who they were contacting and, at times, included the development team in those meetings. The lesson learned from this experience was that open communication with the development team was paramount. Some used the development professionals as the experts and worked closely with them to manage the relationship with key alumni. Michigan’s development colleague plays a critical role in navigating and managing  alumni relationships directly and within the university ecosystem. The support with alumni navigation has been extremely helpful given the tech commercialization office does not have a pool of alumni directly tied to the office’s activities, compared to the well-established alumni relationships the nineteen schools on campus have.

Outreach to Alumni

Another common discussion point was how to establish contact with alumni. WARF found that a “dual attack” system works best: a cold reach out (e.g., through a LinkedIn invite) with a warm introduction from another University of Wisconsin alumni or friend of the university. Using more than one targeted occurrence to get the alumni’s attention increased the success rate. Several universities also mentioned that a warm lead is not needed if the outreach is well-thought out and targeted. For Rutgers, the outreach to an alumnus is usually for an introduction to the business development professional at their company who would be interested in the technology. A frequent outcome of reaching out to an alumnus with this introduction request is the opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the technology in question. Additionally, Columbia learned from other universities that engaging alumni who are senior, mid-career level at a company with research commercialization opportunities which are more closely in line with “their day jobs” make these alumni more willing to interact with the university.

Interacting with Alumni

When trying to figure out how an alumnus can interact with a program, there is not a “one size fits all” model. Many universities mentioned that there are some alumni that want to donate to a fund, others may want to recruit graduate students and post-docs, while the rest want to share their experiences in a more informal way. Several universities have found that the best way to evaluate how an alumnus wants to give back is to simply ask what they care about and determine how and if that aligns with your programs. Additionally, Notre Dame found that there is not a one practice fits all way of integrating alumni into your existing programs. They amended their current approach when establishing Alumni Labs to better fit the needs of their alumni participants.

Setting Expectations

When working with alumni on a potential research or licensing opportunity, McGill University found that educating alumni about how the university works, especially the constraints and the items that cannot be negotiated, was essential. The education helps with any misalignments with expectations – alumni from industry need to understand that a university does not have infinite resources that can be used to address a problem, and  there can be internal considerations that are not obvious to those outside the university. These educational discussions make the interaction more personal than transactional. Another tip from The CITRIS Foundry was to set expectations of your current program members about engaging as alumni in the future. If current participants understand that there will be an ask of them in the future, it has already been established on their “future schedules.”

As The CITRIS Foundry stated: “Alumni who have been successful attract people to your program.” There are clear upsides to enlisting alumni in the research commercialization process at academic institutions: fundraising, aid in programmatic events, and mentorship to name just a few. Based on our interviews, universities work with alumni by utilizing or building out current programs to optimize these experiences. They were willing to share the best practices that they have developed in contacting alumni, managing their expectations, and how to incorporate them into their programs. We hope that these lessons learned can help academic institutions in their efforts in engaging alumni.

I would like to thank the following individuals for taking the time out of their busy schedules to discuss this topic with me: Kira Gardner (The CITRIS Foundry), Daniel Goetzel (Columbia University), Pavita Howe (Rutgers), Nhi Le (WARF), Sacha Patera (Rutgers), Michael Psarouthakis (University of Michigan), Kelley Rich (University of Notre Dame), and Mark Weber (McGill University). If your academic institutions are engaging alumni in different ways, or have additional lesson learns that you want to share, please contact Jaimie Testai at OUP.