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Universities Lend A Helping Hand

Tobias Stapleton,
Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director,
Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship,
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth


Small to medium-size marine technology companies are faced with numerous challenges in bringing their products to market, developing new technologies, and identifying new markets or customers. While many of these companies were born in a university setting, a lot of CEOs don’t consider the help that academic institutions might be able to provide in growing their business.

Meanwhile, universities are under increasing pressure to introduce “real-world” projects and cases into the classroom, so they have an interest in finding meaningful projects for their students. However, working with a school can be challenging. There’s typically no central office that businesses can call for help, and if you’re unfamiliar with a university ecosystem, you probably don’t know where to even begin the conversation. So, learning how to work with an academic institution is important.

Universities can provide help to marine technology companies in a number of ways. Research, product development and even funding assistance, through Small Business Technology Transfers (STTRs) and other funding mechanisms, are just a few examples of how a business can engage a university for support.

The first step in working with an academic partner is to identify exactly what you need help with, then determining how you think the university can provide that help. Having realistic expectations when developing the scope of the project is essential during this process. For instance, having a team of M.B.A. students, who probably don’t have substantial experience in this sector, develop a global marketing plan in three months may be unreasonable, but having that same team identify a particular market segment or opportunity to pursue in one country may not be. Seeking out faculty who have successfully managed these types of projects is important because they’ll be able to work with you to set realistic expectations and goals.

Understanding that universities operate on an academic calendar is critical. This will determine both the timing of projects, i.e., when you should approach a school about your needs and when a project will likely get completed. For instance, if you start the project at the beginning of the fall semester in September, the project would likely be finished at the end of the semester in December.

Again, there’s typically no centralized office to turn to for help, but developing the scope of your project will help you identify what department or college you should turn to. For instance, if it’s help with product design that you need, then you’ll probably want to identify a college of engineering that can help. Developing a relationship with key faculty members is important to the success of this type of effort. Four-year institutions, community colleges and even trade schools have formed or are forming programs around marine technology, and those department chairs or program managers are good people with whom to start the conversation.

As just one example of academic institutions that can support private industry efforts, the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, located in southern New England between the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is part of a corridor representing a hotbed of activity in the marine technology sector, from sensors to marine robotics. Creating and sustaining relationships are key to growing businesses and the industry as a whole, and in an effort to engage and strengthen the industry, the UMass Dartmouth Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has become a conduit for companies in the region to connect them with campus-based researchers and resources. As part of that effort, the Maritime Innovations conference, a biannual event, held in April this year, was created to provide a forum for education and networking opportunities. When industry gets together with academia, new connections pave the way for new possibilities.

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