Diversified portfolio: New financial structure keeps academic researchers in business

            COLLEGE STATION – At 5 p.m. on Friday, the crew at Texas A&M AgriLife’s Corporate Relations leaves the office with this mantra: Only two more working days until Monday.

           “We’re not a bureaucracy,” said Bob Avant, Corporate Relations program director. “We will respond within 24 hours to any query, no matter when, because we have our clients’ best interest in mind, and we listen.We cut through the bureaucracy and approach projects from the mindset of the corporate executive.”

           Avant’s office is in a building on the edge of the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, a corporate-type location that underscores his approach to working with big business: It’s not academic, but it’s close enough to bridge the all-too-often gap between scientific discovery and commercialization.

           And that business model has been successful, totaling about $100 million invested for the 10-year 2007-2017 span, Avant said. The program provides a topic-specific project manager to be the single point-of-contact, freeing the scientist to concentrate on the research.

           “The project managers can communicate technically with the researcher who is in charge of the project and also can talk business with a company. That bridge is what makes us unique, because rather than have a project manager who only knows the business side of things, ours know the science as well,” Avant said. “Our project managers wake up in the morning concerned about their projects.”

           The notion of “corporate relations” was first tossed around in 2006 by Texas A&M AgriLife Research leaders Drs. Mark Hussey and Bill McCutchen. Federal research dollars were trending downward, and the two thought more collaboration between academia and business was necessary to counteract that spiral.

“At that time, less than 3 percent of our research budget came from corporations,” said Hussey, now vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences for the Texas A&M University System. “The largest single grant from a corporation then was $250,000 for a three-year program.”

A more ‘diverse portfolio’ might help the state research agency weather financial and scientific setbacks should government funds dry up, the two reckoned.

But attracting corporate funding was not just about money, Hussey said.

“We set some ground rules,” Hussey recalled. “We would not compete with faculty who were already working with corporations. And we want to work with companies that share our vision and our values.”

           Originally, the idea was to focus on the development of crops that had high potential for biomass production for conversion to energy. Avant, who had directed the Texas Food and Fibers Commission, joined AgriLife Research part time in 2006 to pursue work with corporations that were interested in bioenergy projects.

           By 2007, with Ceres and Chevron collaborations in the works, Avant’s position became full time, and the concept of having topic-specific project managers evolved.

           Avant and McCutchen, AgriLife Research executive associate director, began assessing strength and weaknesses within AgriLife Research to determine which areas of science the agency could best match with corporate partners.

           That was an important development because AgriLife Research is a $171 million state agency that conducts studies in agriculture, natural resources and the life sciences. It is part of the Texas A&M University System, tied to 14 academic departments with 350 faculty members and networked to 13 research facilities and 380 additional scientists located around the state.

           Eventually, McCutchen suggested that the model of supplying project managers to work with the scientists should be tried in other areas of research.

           “As the need for project managers grew, we identified key people in AgriLife that have the skills, are respected by the faculty and are go-getters,” Avant said, noting that Corporate Relations now employs 10 people. “In 2012, we received additional investment from Bayer CropScience for a wheat project and from BP for a bioenergy project.”

           He said the effort takes patience, noting that from the time of the first point of contact any agreement can take about one year to complete.

           “We’re involved with strategic, long-term, multi-unit projects,” Avant said. “If a project has two or more departments at the College Station campus and/or two or three centers across the state involved, that is when sophisticated management is needed. And that’s the reason we’re unique.”

The companies involved with Corporate Relations already have applied findings from the research projects, Avant said, noting that many of those outcomes are proprietary.

“Chevron has been working with AgriLife Research Corporate Relations since 2007 on several projects of strategic importance to us,” said Michelle Long, manager of feedstock and logistics for Chevron Technology Ventures in Houston. “They have taken a personal interest in the work product, ensuring that deliverables are provided on-time and on-budget.”

        “Thus far, the business model has worked because the agency has focused on long-term relationships with corporations,” said Dr. Craig Nessler, AgriLife Research director. “And we’ve been able to balance academia – the research freedom of our scientists to publish their findings – along with the right of the funding company to license any of the results for commercial purposes.”

           AgriLife Research officials plan to keep a diverse funding portfolio with no more than 20 percent of the research dollars coming from corporations.

           “We don’t want to grow corporation funding too big,” Hussey said.

           Nessler said corporate funding now stands at about 9 percent of the research budget.  “Our success is in attracting and retaining corporations to work with,” Avant said. “The metric is to retain the client, and if they come back for additional projects, they are happy.”

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