How to build resilient university-industry partnerships in the COVID era

COVID-19 brought to light the importance of resilient and long-serving partnerships
Chad Hardaway
Chad Hardaway

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world last year, universities were put to the test when state shutdowns and stay-at-home orders shuttered schools and colleges. Almost overnight, the education landscape changed.

With shifting priorities and the need to pivot from the established way of doing things, budget cuts were inevitable. Though damaging, the effects wrought by the pandemic also provided a brief pause and an opportunity to reevaluate budgets, goals, and relationships with key partners.

In particular, COVID-19 brought to light the importance of resilient and long-serving partnerships, whether with industry, researchers, entrepreneurs, or governments. These partnerships are the lifeblood of a modern university, creating new opportunities, driving economic engagement, and promoting workforce development in the university’s home market.

Solving real-world challenges

At the University of South Carolina, the Office of Innovation, Partnerships, and Economic Engagement was established for this exact mission: to connect public and private partners with academic resources in order to solve real-world challenges.

Recently, the university and technology giant Siemens announced an expansion of their existing partnership–first launched in 2017–which will provide new software learning opportunities for students while helping develop innovative solutions for today’s manufacturing challenges.

The existence of the 15,000-square-foot Digital Transformation Lab at the university’s McNAIR Aerospace Center is a testament to how these partnerships have helped sustain our university, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In fact, one of the main benefits of these partnerships is how resilient they have been over the course of 2020, when so many other things in academia were seemingly up-for-grabs. For other academic professionals looking to emulate our efforts, here are three reasons why we’ve been able to sustain these partnerships during COVID-19:

We got ahead of the curve. Years before the pandemic ever began, we had developed a vision of how industry-academic innovation could work on campus.

In the physical realm, this involved installing demonstration spaces featuring cutting-edge software from partners within our Digital Transformation Lab (founded in 2018), where students could get hands-on experience with industry-grade technology.

Trying to launch these partnerships from scratch only after a global pandemic had struck would have been markedly more difficult. However, that doesn’t mean there’s a “perfect” time to get started there’s always some sort of institutional or external restraint, so now is as good a time as any. Waiting until the next crisis appears on the horizon will be too late.

Having in-house capabilities meant that travel wasn’t an issue. As we all know, much of the American economy shut down in March 2020 and has struggled to re-open since then. Business travel was no exception.

Under a more traditional industry engagement model, 2020 would have been a lost year for our partnership efforts (not to mention missed opportunities for students to learn) without the ability to meet and collaborate in person. However, thanks to our existing partnerships, we were fortunate enough to have replicas of industry equipment already built on campus.

In order to collaborate with industry partners, we no longer needed to travel to them, or vice versa; we could simply fire up the demo equipment and discuss problems and solutions over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. And once travel did resume, we were one of the first stops on companies’ lists (including partners like Siemens, Samsung, and IBM) because our facilities had been up-and-running for months already.

We could focus on real-life solutions, thereby showing value to our stakeholders. Throughout the pandemic, our operations at the Digital Transformation Lab never stopped, though they did adjust. Once we realized the scope of the pandemic, we were able to flip a switch and make all of our demos more relevant to fighting COVID-19.

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We actually collaborated with one industry partner, Nephron Pharmaceuticals, to develop saliva testing that helped diagnose COVID-19. When the state of South Carolina wanted to roll-out an official testing program, we were able to provide them with an in-house solution, so that they could roll out a solution faster rather than having to turn to a third party vendor.

To date,the Office of Innovation, Partnerships, and Economic Engagement has over 25 industry partners with companies like Siemens, Samsung, IBM, and many others. Despite the pandemic, we have continued to work with all our partners to develop solutions to real-world problems.

Now that a COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out, it’s exciting to think that life and work will return back to “normal” sometime this year, but as our experience shows, change is the only constant. By thinking creatively and adapting to challenging circumstances, universities can develop similar resilient partnerships to benefit students, researchers, and industry alike.

Chad Hardaway is the deputy director for the Office of Innovation, Partnerships, and Economic Engagement and the director for the Center for Applied Innovation, Advanced Analytics, and Digital Transformation at the University of South Carolina.

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