When I proudly returned to The University of Oklahoma, eight years ago, I had little idea of what to expect and even less of how to make an impact. Every industry, much less individual organization, has norms based on commonly held values and experiences, and having come from the private sector with no previous experience working in academia, I fully knew this would take time to learn; a reminder I was given on my “first” day, March 3rd, 2014, when my new boss called me the night before to inform me not to come to the office the next day, the University was closed for a “Snow Day”, my first since high school.
That didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of people, on both sides, who were willing to tell me how the two cultures differed, but after listening to a few and ignoring a lot, it seemed to come down to two main points, time and money, it always does. Often corporations work on timescales built around artificial deadlines, such as the next quarter’s profits. While this focus has benefits, it often means sacrificing long term strategy and goals for the sake of immediate returns. This can become particularly dangerous when it comes to solving big problems with disruptive solutions, a reason startup companies are often responsible for the next generation products rather than the established market leaders. Universities, while perceived as slower, have in fact found mechanisms to nurture creativity and big broad thinking; however, this can come at a cost, literally. Learning and trying new things means failure is expected, and with failure comes financial costs which may not be recouped. Companies on the other hand are typically extremely efficient at growing sources of profit and eliminating sources of undue cost. What it seemed to boil down to was that the two groups saw value as derived from two different sources, Universities’ – Knowledge and Companies’ – Financial Returns.
This type of divide is not unique to these entities, and both are correct for their circumstances, however working in an office, Technology Commercialization, whose goal is two cross this divide, a solution was needed. Trying to translate one unit of value into another is possible and done, anyone remember the money exchange booth in the international terminal of the airport, but often requires a leap of faith and a lot of speculation. “Our Intellectual Property will be a key competitive advantage on this yet to be developed product and will be worth your upfront and continued development investment” or “Disclosure will result in returns from licensing or new research collaborations”, are both possibly true, but understandably challenging to convince their respective audiences. Therefore, rather than a direct translation, a common language or goal is needed. To me this is best defined by one word – IMPACT.
They may say it slightly differently, but both groups are looking to have an IMPACT. At their core universities desire to better society through education and creative activities. Companies look for both broad and fanatical adoption of their products by customers. Universities work to solve big far horizon problems with novel solutions, and companies are built on years of efficient practices of delivering solutions for which customers are willing to pay. Both are critical in maximizing Impact. Whether it’s a new therapeutic to treat an orphan disease, improving storm warning lead times, or delivering real-time interventions to help people quit smoking, commercializing products that impact customers, and collectively society, require both approaches. Thus while the cultures may differ, the goal is the same, and it is the complimentary competencies that allow us all to have IMPACT!