Entre Nous with Jean-François Nadeau, Senior Director, Corporate Relations
MUBEC: a one-stop shop to make collaboration easier
By McGill Reporter Staff
Jean-François Nadeau came to McGill in 2010 with a mission to improve the ways in which the University interacts with companies and corporations looking to offer financial support for various campus initiatives, such as sponsoring research projects, assisting students, or hiring student interns. A graduate of the Université de Sherbrooke, he spent 25 years at IBM Canada, working with both the public and private sectors. He’s the leader of McGill’s new centre designed to streamline the relationships between the corporate and academic worlds.
What is MUBEC? What do you do and who does what?
MUBEC is the McGill University Business Engagement Centre, and it is a single point of entry into McGill for the corporate community at large. It’s really about relationships with the business community. This is an initiative that came to life at McGill following many observations inside McGill, outside McGill, and in the academic world about how we could improve the ways we interact with external partners.
So we started researching our peer universities right across the country as well as universities we can compare to in the United States. This is what we looked at in 2010-2011, when we were trying to figure out if our existing model was appropriate, in line with best practices out there, and if we had the same level of results or outcomes arising from relationships with the corporate world as other organizations, particularly the ones who are identified as the best.
What kind of relationship does McGill have with the corporate world and why do we need to have one?
The kinds of relationships we have with the corporate world are multifaceted. It’s about opportunities for students – internships, awards, and other support; it is about contractual or sponsored research; it is about technology transfer and licensing opportunities; it is, in some instances, about getting partners involved in the creation of start-ups. So there are opportunities for students, professors, and administrative staff to collaborate with many different stakeholders.
The difficulty that the corporate world keeps expressing – when they talk about their relationships with universities in general, not just with McGill – is that large universities are so complex right now that they would like us to hide that organizational complexity for them, so that the interactions and the collaborations, ultimately, are facilitated and made much easier than they are today. Corporations have lived through similar situations themselves, where their clients were telling them, “You’re too complex; help us work with you.” So we have the same challenge here: we need to facilitate and ease the interactions, the dialogue, and the collaborations between universities and industry.
And that will result in what benefit to the University?
This will increase the amount of resources that corporations can provide to McGill. At the end of the day, what MUBEC is trying to do is make sure that we have more opportunities for internships as well as more opportunities where corporations are supporting the research projects of students and professors on campus. It is about a dialogue and an exchange of value, where we have value for the corporate world, and they have funding and resources. This is really about facilitating that interaction, the dialogue, and the exchange of value between these two worlds.
I suppose we are in competition with other universities for corporate research dollars and opportunities, so if we have a complicated process, that will hinder us in that competition?
Absolutely, and in fact that competition is no longer local competition or provincial competition or even national – it’s global competition. We have organizations telling us that, while they used to spread their contributions to universities right across the country, today, what they are looking for is working in a much deeper, tighter relationship with a select group of universities on the planet. So the best ones in terms of facilitating this conversation, the dialogue, the understanding between our two worlds, they are going to be the winners.
There is concern on the part of some who are leery of relationships between the corporate and the academic worlds. Some wonder whether we are selling out to the corporate world. How much are the corporations dictating to us what we teach, what we research, how we do things?
What is important to understand is that when we get into sponsored research discussions with a corporation – just to pick one example here – we have a set of rules. We have guidelines, we have policies, and we have legal contracts with terms and conditions that protect McGill’s integrity and autonomy and ensure we don’t find ourselves in situations where a company could dictate terms of research. We are never forced to take specific directions for research, no matter which Faculty or domain we’re talking about. When we interact with corporations, it is always respectful of McGill’s mission, which is learning and teaching. It also always includes the right to publish results or outcomes of our research projects and initiatives. These are non-negotiable.
I have participated in many conversations between the corporate world and McGill, at all levels, and I’ve never seen a situation where a corporation demanded, “You do it this way or no way.” We always come to an agreement where we can deliver as well as protect our rights – to publish what we’re doing, to be independent. Increasing interactions with corporations will not put pressure on us in this. I can tell you corporations do respect that independence because they see the value in having universities that are free to explore research in any directions they wish.
The corporate world sees the value of applied research, but they also recognize the value of fundamental research where there is the freedom of thinking and choice that belongs to the university.
The current federal government has clearly indicated a preference for applied research so that there is some economic return from the money they invest in research. They want universities to produce things that can be sold, that can create jobs, etc. How much of that spills into the corporate world and puts pressure on corporations to seek research that has a practical application as opposed to pure research?
This is a very good point. You’re right and provincial governments as well are following the same line of thinking. They have the same discourse with regards to getting more out of the universities into society in terms of explicit contributions. And this is not a situation happening only in Quebec or Canada, but also in the US and Europe. That being said, what that does is it opens up an important opportunity because corporations today have problems with innovation. So while the government is pushing its funding to projects that are closer to applied research, corporations still understand that before there is applied research, there is fundamental research. They continue to fund fundamental research because they are searching for the next breakthrough, beyond applied research, to ensure they are not missing a wave or something that is emerging right now. I would say they are more interested than before in what’s going on in fundamental research labs.
So tell me a little bit about what McGill is doing now or what it will be doing in the near future that it wasn’t doing before.
The first thing we’re doing through MUBEC is that we have corporate relations managers with a cross-campus, cross-unit mission acting as a single point of entry for the corporate world. So if a company wants to interact with McGill, they can contact one of the people in the Business Engagement Centre, and we are going to make sure that they are getting in touch with the right units and people on campus in order to facilitate and ease interactions with McGill and to improve corporations’ experiences in doing so.
Before MUBEC, the model was very much segmented by Faculty. But this does not fit with the world we’re in right now, because of the context we’ve just described and because everything is more and more multidisciplinary. Even though we have adapted the model, MUBEC does not do the work of existing units. We are making sure that we hide the complexity of the organization to the outside world, so that we are more efficient and more effective. That’s the major change in the way we handle relationships, and that benefits multiple internal stakeholders at McGill.
In other words, we figure out in advance all the people they need to talk to in order to make things happen. You don’t make it happen; you just make sure the conversation takes place.
Absolutely, we insure that proper conversations are taking place in due time, to the benefit of all participants. There’s a broker aspect to this role, and there’s a translation component that’s very important, in terms of translation between the cultures – the academic versus the business world. The people we’ve hired are people who understand both worlds. This is multilingualism from a different angle.
I assume there’s a business model that indicates the investment we make in MUBEC will pay for itself?
Yes, absolutely. This is a business plan over the next three years – keeping in mind that the typical cycle for getting from a new opportunity to seeing funding is anywhere between 12 to 18 months. So at the end of the first year of implementation, which is April 30, we will see how much we have accomplished in terms of our key performance indicators. And so far, one interesting aspect is that the corporations we are engaging through MUBEC are, in addition to several local organizations, corporations from outside Canada – be it in Brazil, in Paris, in New York. The international and global aspect cannot be overlooked.
Not people we’ve done business with before?
Not always companies we’ve done business with before, or if we did business before, not always the result of an ongoing relationship that had been nurtured with a cross-campus unit and cross-Faculties perspective or goals.