Companies around the state are expanding the ideation process beyond corporate walls, pitching partnership value to local universities, and forging long-term relationships in the process.
Johnsonville Sausage is one of many companies seeing value in seeking out the fresh perspectives of the next generation of leaders by collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kevin Ladwig, president of Johnsonville’s corporate venture firm MSAB Capital, LLC, calls it “brain sharing.”
“It’s quite valuable to get other people thinking hard about your business,” Ladwig said. “Spend some time getting your company in front of students and organizations to up your visibility and awareness.”
Companies will typically mine for innovative ideas in the same places, engaging mature companies, suppliers, vendors or attending trade shows, for example. While these watering holes still offer value, accessing the knowledge base of a university could bring new capabilities to a business, Ladwig said.
“The ideas you get from those two places are quite different,” Ladwig said. “You’re not going to hear about the startup idea that could be disruptive, or critical to your core business to grow in a new market or be more productive in your operation.”
Johnsonville has engaged with UW-Madison’s food sciences and biomedical engineering departments. A big part of Ladwig’s role at Johnsonville is surveying the company’s leadership team for challenges, and at times, conveying that data to university faculty.
“You begin getting these responses and ideas back that help build your capabilities,” Ladwig said. “You’d be surprised how many professors call up and say, ‘Hey, I thought about your challenge, what do you think if we did this?’”
Through collaboration with universities, Johnsonville has discovered novel ways to utilize raw materials or byproducts from its manufacturing processes. New opportunities may not always be apparent to businesses, but universities, professors, and students are well-equipped problem-solvers, Ladwig added.
“A lot of times this leads to sponsored research where we get a little smarter about the material and maybe its chemical composition or material science,” Ladwig said. “That’s quite useful because you can patent that or maybe it’s intellectual property you can hold onto or co-own with universities.”[caption id="attachment_506118" align="alignright" width="300"] Dianne Murphy[/caption]
The UW-Green Bay Austin E. Cofrin School of Business is finding similar success fostering relationships with businesses in the region. The business school’s assistant professor of management, Dianne Murphy, has spent her tenure at the university converting these partnerships into symbiotic relationships.
One of Murphy’s courses focuses on organizational behavior, which includes motivation, leadership and team building. In a semester-long consultancy project, students visit local businesses and conduct surveys or interviews to discover new opportunities, Murphy said.
“They would maybe study a turnover problem and then look at the theories, motivation and try to apply that theory to that situation to identify and problem solve,” Murphy said.
Students are supplied with deep learning experiences, making them a more effective employee in the workforce, she said. Businesses walk away with the benefit of new perspectives and perhaps solutions to internal challenges.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment was low in Wisconsin, leading to high competition for skilled labor. Through university and industry collaboration, businesses gained access to a pool of prospective employees.
While the employment landscape has changed in recent months, a factor that remains unchanged is that businesses will continue to look for the best and the brightest, Murphy said.
“The goal is to have mutual benefits when you build these partnerships,” Murphy said. “The company gets to preview our students first-hand. So, whether it’s the internship, the tours, the team consulting project, they’re able to see those students and see them in action.”
But when it comes to building relationships, it’s more than just a phone call, Murphy said. The process of building partnerships starts with meeting professors in a particular subject, finding common interests and expanding that relationship into an internship or even a special research project for a student, Ladwig said.
“Universities, professors, faculty, I think they’re problem solvers, that’s what they do,” Ladwig said. “You want to supply them with problems and have an open-door policy.”