Scouting emerging tech: the advantages of university relationships

July 25, 2017

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Looking to higher education for innovation and talent is a win-win.

As the chief technologist for PwC, I’m always looking for ways to identify promising new technologies before they go mainstream, learn more about the ones that are poised to transform the tech landscape, and stay on top of the trends that are already underway. This “tech scouting” is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.

In my tech scouting efforts, I’ve found that universities can be an incredibly productive source of intelligence about emerging technologies. This observation isn’t surprising by itself, as many breakthrough technologies originate in the work done by graduate students or even undergraduates. Google, Yahoo, Netscape, and many others began as undergrad or grad student projects. College students also started Facebook, Microsoft, and Dell—although those were extracurricular projects, not part of their founders’ degree programs.

Today, universities like Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT, and the University of Illinois are widely recognized as hotbeds of tech research and talent. Hundreds of additional universities have significant research programs in computer science, electrical engineering, and more. And many universities are adding incubators explicitly aimed at fostering entrepreneurship among students, faculty, and the community, which increases the innovative ferment.

This has made universities terrific places to scout for new ideas, new technologies, and new tech talent. But how best to tap into it all? Many universities are eager to work with corporations, and such relationships can provide companies with a variety of benefits, including:

  • Problem-solving (when students work on finding solutions to a company’s real-world problems)
  • Access to new technologies in their earliest stages
  • Recruitment

“Many universities are eager to work with corporations, and such relationships can provide companies with a variety of benefits.”

Two ways PwC is working with universities

PwC recently entered into a multiyear partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, establishing the Carnegie Mellon Risk and Regulatory Innovation Services Center Sponsored by PwC. The Center is multidisciplinary, with contributions from computer science, information systems management, and other areas. Carnegie Mellon has dedicated a faculty member to chair the center, which PwC has funded.

Working with PwC, the Center has identified a handful of promising research projects, and a combination of faculty, grad students, and PwC staff are working together on those projects, which focus on data analytics, cyber and privacy issues, “safe cities,” and executive education. The projects involve emerging technologies like blockchain, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, deep learning, and machine learning.

Such a collaboration is one way to fund basic research, and while the payoff won’t be immediate, it could mean great dividends in the future. PwC’s Dean Simone, governance chair of the Center, views the partnership as an opportunity to use advances in data analytics and emerging tech to help PwC clients understand their risks, address their regulatory challenges, and solve broader, organization-wide issues.

The UK is home to another PwC university partnership in which we’re cultivating relationships based on technology. Our new Flying Start Technology Degree Apprenticeship program with the University of Birmingham and the University of Leeds, which will kick off in September 2017, is designed to give more young people from a broader range of backgrounds the opportunity to get into a career in technology and help grow the UK’s next generation of technology talent. The program also focuses on encouraging more women to work in the technology field. The apprenticeship enables PwC to develop and tap into university talent and give students on-the-job experience and exposure to the firm while they earn their computer science degrees.

Scaled-down ways to engage

Funding a lab or underwriting a named chair is a high-commitment endeavor. It costs money and requires a significant time commitment from a company’s executive leaders and rank-and-file employees, who might act as advisors, partners, business contacts, and the like. But there are higher-education collaborations that have a lower barrier to entry. And I’m surprised that so few companies take advantage of them. Our 2017 Global Digital IQ Survey found that just three percent of executives look to university labs as a resource for applying emerging technologies in new ways to solve business problems. There are a number of ways to engage with universities that offer alternatives to funding an entire lab. They include:

Advisory council

Engaging with universities doesn’t need to cost a lot of money or time. For example, a senior engineer or tech-oriented executive could join the advisory council of an engineering school. This kind of one-on-one relationship is easy to arrange compared to an official corporate outreach effort, and it will likely be driven by alumni relationships. For example, you might want to advise the school where you earned your master’s degree. The time commitment is likely to be relatively small, with several meetings a year, but the relationship can help you recruit students for internships or jobs, and you will gain insight into active research at the school.

Project sponsorship

Another low-impact relationship that carries a slightly higher level of commitment is sponsoring an undergraduate capstone project. For example, industrial engineering students at Texas A&M (my alma mater) do  senior projects, and PwC and one of our clients act as joint sponsors of the program. We gain a valuable recruiting tool by learning first-hand about these projects and the students performing them.

Hackathons

Finally, the popularity of hackathons opens another interesting opportunity for companies. Texas A&M hosts a hackathon in partnership with corporations four to five times a year. The corporations submit real-world problems that they would like to solve, and the hackathon teams work on them during one intense weekend. Granted, your company’s next blockbuster product probably won’t come out of a university hackathon, but you’d be surprised at how useful it is to see solutions proposed by groups of motivated, creative, and talented engineering students who tackle your problems with fresh eyes.

As I mentioned above, university relationships tend to be driven by executives who are alumni. PwC employees are involved in various ways in the universities they attended, including Purdue, Georgia Tech, and others in addition to Texas A&M.

Intellectual property considerations

The ownership of intellectual property (IP) is one important aspect to consider in a relationship with a university. These issues should be resolved as part of any long-term collaboration. For example, in our work with one university, we decided to focus primarily on applied research as opposed to the development of new IP. This focus allows us to quickly apply the new techniques developed by the university to our client problems. The projects are structured so the development of new IP is ancillary to the mission of the partnership.

In contrast, our efforts at another university more explicitly focus on the development of new IP and technologies. At the beginning of our relationship with the university, we negotiated express IP ownership and license terms, and we identified the core IP and technologies that PwC and the university would bring to the table. This agreement allows us to work on more fundamental issues with the researchers and to publish jointly. Both types of agreements have a role in any long-term relationship.

Tech scouting in higher education

From relatively low-commitment alumni involvement to high-commitment corporate-university relationships, higher education is a rich source of information for scouting new tech trends and for recruiting talent. It’s an indispensable part of my tech scouting toolkit.

For more strategies on tech scouting, see my prior posts on mentoring a high school robotics team and working with startup accelerators and incubators.

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Contacts

Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffrey

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email