Virginia Tech launching business engagement center

Virginia Tech is creating a business engagement centre as part of a major push to expand and integrate its partnerships with leading companies.

A national search is underway for an executive director to head the centre. The executive director will build a team of business development directors who can serve as primary points of contact for companies interested in a wide variety of partnership opportunities. There will be team members located in the National Capital Region and Roanoke — where Virginia Tech has additional campuses — as well as in Blacksburg.

“Industry looks to universities for a wide range of reasons, such as joint research, recruiting, and philanthropy,” Vice President for Research and Innovation Theresa Mayer said. “Right now, executives might have to reach out to separate offices at Virginia Tech for each of those functions. By creating an engagement centre to help with all their needs, we’re responding to industry’s strong preference for an easier, one-stop process.”

The engagement centre’s executive director will jointly report to Mayer and Vice President for Advancement Charlie Phlegar. Fundraising functions currently overseen by the university’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations will be handled through the engagement centre, but the centre’s business development directors will focus on helping companies with all their partnership interests, not just philanthropy.

Virginia Tech Associate Vice President of Development for Colleges Mike Moyer is playing a lead role implementing the engagement centre model.

“Companies should be able to pick up the phone and speak with their own point person who can provide a 360-degree-view of their existing partnerships and highlight new opportunities to work together,” Moyer said. “This should lead to deeper relationships, with many benefits for the university and its partners.”

The shift to an engagement centre is in keeping with other strategic efforts to make it easier for major companies to partner with Virginia Tech, including recent agreements with Facebook and Lockheed Martin that simplify the process of setting up joint research projects.

“Corporate partnerships help ensure that the commercialization potential of our problem-focused research can be realised, which is essential to our land-grant mission of seeing knowledge used in ways that benefit society,” Mayer said. “Our relationships with companies help our students find jobs, and these relationships generate revenue through gifts or sponsored projects. We have robust partnerships with many companies, but there’s tremendous potential for growth in this area. The business engagement centre will be an important resource for companies — and for our many faculty members who are excited to partner with industry.”

Ed Krause is the global manager for external alliances at Ford Motor Company, which has a longstanding and multifaceted research relationship with Virginia Tech and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He said companies welcome the “one-stop shopping” potential of business engagement centres at universities, but he “probably can’t name five schools right now that have that model fully in place and working.”

“Even many large companies like Ford are very lean, and people are very busy,” Krause added. “Sometimes just the effort of having to find out whom to talk to can put enough friction in the system to slow or stop a potentially valuable interaction. The business engagement centre model addresses this.”

Daryl Weinert helped establish an engagement centre for the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, which proved so successful that the model was adopted university-wide.

“The idea is that, by making it simpler for external entities to interact and find useful assets to them, more will happen overall, and we’ve seen that,” said Weinert, who is now Michigan’s associate vice president for research, business operations.

Five years after creating an engagement centre, corporate philanthropy to Michigan’s engineering college had risen by 40 percent, Weinert said. The university-wide centre has also helped the regional economy, he said, citing how the centre marshalled corporate support as part of successful effort to persuade the federal government to locate a regional patent and trademark office in Detroit.

“Universities and companies can benefit in so many different ways from working together that it can be easy to overlook opportunities if you don’t have anyone focused on the relationship as a whole,” Mayer said. “By creating this centre, we are bringing that big-picture focus to Virginia Tech.”