Courting industry: Why your next research funding won’t come from a grant

It’s approaching the end of the year, and for Australian researchers that means grant announcement season. It’s a time often filled with anticipation and anxiety as many a researcher awaits news of the grant applications they submitted some ten months ago.

This year the funding news isn’t great, with reports National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Project Grant success rates are as low as 9%. These funding rates have been steadily declining since 2010. The Australian Research Council (ARC), while slightly better with Discovery Projects funded at 18%, has seen funding rates drop from 25-30% just ten years ago.

Rather than boost NHMRC and ARC success rates, the Federal Government is steering the ship towards more interactions between researchers and industry. In fact, from 2017, the Australian Government will introduce new research funding arrangements that give the same weight to success in industry and other end-user engagement as they do to research quality.

So what does this mean? And how can academics best position themselves to leverage these new arrangements?

In a sense, applying for grant funding is actually a relatively ‘easy’ option.  You apply for a grant (there are clear parameters for the applications), you wait and then you get a response. If your grant isn’t successful, you think, “that’s OK, the rates are so low nobody is getting funding”. In a way, it’s an impersonal interaction between you and the funding body.

But seeking funding from industry or another government entity is much more personal. There are relationships to build, trust to gain and expectations to meet. Rejection can feel a whole lot more personal.

As with any grant application, you want to maximise your chances when seeking funding from industry and other sources.  Here are my top tips on how to successfully engage with industry:

  1. Change your mindset
    Industry money is not “dirty” money, and industry are not rolling in money. There is no golden goose. Many businesses are driven by the need to maximise returns for their shareholders. This is often achieved through improving productivity, reducing costs and bringing out new products with features that customers want.
  2. Understand their needs
    Listen, don’t talk. You’ll be amazed what insights you’ll gain by asking the right questions and listening. Do this before launching into your own research project sales pitch.
  3. Be flexible and agile
    While your project is incredibly personal, be prepared to change focus to meet industry needs. Is there a way you can gear your research to solve industry problems? This is the best way to frame your work to get industry interested.
  4. It’s a slow dance
    You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you the first time you meet. You’d go on a date and let romance blossom. If it’s working out you might introduce them to your parents. It’s the same with considerable R&D investment from industry.  You need to build a relationship, gain trust and deliver on small-scale projects first, then grow old together.
  5. Industry are willing to pay if you remove their pain
    Lowering the pain can be achieved in many ways and this is specific to each business. It may mean reducing production costs, helping acquire and retain more customers or even cure patients more effectively.
  6. Network, network, network
    Never underestimate the benefits of networking, you never know where the next door to an opportunity will open.