Business is supposed to be about innovation. Meanwhile, colleges are hotbeds of new ideas and research. It’s an ideal match, according to Coleen Burrus, whose job is to make sure companies and the various research departments at Princeton University get and stay connected.
Burrus is the director of corporate engagement and foundation relations at Princeton, and she speaks on “Connecting Industry with Innovation and Research at Princeton University” at the Princeton Regional Chamber’s “Business Before Business” breakfast meeting on Wednesday, January 17, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. Cost: $40. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
A native of St. Louis, Burrus grew up wanting to be in urban planning. She started with a bachelor from Fontbonne University in history (the subject her father taught in high school; her mother ran a credit union), with an eye on a life in government and public policy. Three years later, in 1991, she had her masters in public policy from St. Louis University, and she set about her career in government by working for Saint Louis County as a planner until 1999.
Burrus was a community builder fellow at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a year and then became the director of foundation and government relations at the University of Chicago. In 2003 she moved across town to be the associate director of foundation relations at Northwestern. She eventually became director of corporate engagement until 2015. In 2009 Burrus was elected to the Evanston, Illinois, City Council, serving the city’s 9th Ward. In 2015 she left the Chicago area for Princeton.
Fostering connections. Most of what Burrus does in Princeton University’s Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations is making sure relationships between corporations or foundations and the university’s various departments start right and stay mutually beneficial.
“We see ourselves as the gateway for companies if they want to engage with the university,” she says.
Companies sometimes come to the university in search of academic research partners, and sometimes Burrus’ office identifies companies or industries that look like a good fit for some work happening at Princeton. One of the big advantages the university has, she says, is that many members of Princeton’s faculty have existing relationships with companies in the area. Plenty of Princeton alumni work or have worked for the major companies in and close to New Jersey, and the connections are not so much hard to find as they are in need of maintenance.
On the other side of the coin, most larger companies, Burrus says, have departments that specialize in finding and working with talent at the university level. So most of the dynamic is already solidly in place. But Burrus knows that not every company understands the depth and breadth of the resource Princeton University can be, which is why she frequently speaks at chambers of commerce or gives talks at the school showcasing what companies need to know about working with Princeton.
Research departments. Not all gloves are made for all hands, and Burrus says she and her staff need to find the right fit between companies and academic departments. As you might expect, “there’s no formula to it,” she says. There is no script to follow, and just because a department is doing research on something doesn’t mean it neatly fits into what a company is doing.
That’s especially true of foundations, which by nature have a different set of goals and motivations from for-profit companies, she says.
“They’re such different animals,” Burrus says. “Foundations run more on missions. They have guidelines that are much more clearly defined.”
They also tend to pull from different departments at Princeton than for-profit companies do. While some foundations are science or tech-based, a lot also find their matches in the humanities and social sciences departments.
Mostly, however, the Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations works with corporations, Burrus says. And those companies overwhelmingly find talent in Princeton’s School of Engineering — particularly computer science and electrical and chemical engineering — or in life sciences, which fits, given the pharmaceutical hub the Princeton corridor is.
“It’s not necessarily one specific program,” Burrus says, regarding what companies are looking for at Princeton. “It would be clusters of research excellence.”
Burrus’ office also oversees a corporate affiliates program that looks at ways to grapple with global needs, like energy and the environment. Several high-level, multinationals are members of the corporate affiliates program.
Talking it out. Like all relationships, the ones between Princeton and the organizations looking to partner with it need a lot of talking things through, Burrus says. If a company wanted to find talent through Princeton, Burrus and her staff would start by talking with the appropriate faculty members and gauging their interest in working with the company. Then they would introduce the two sides and start the conversation, looking at what the company needs and what the university research team can and is willing to do in return.
And while it all sounds painfully simple — a company is looking to refine a drug, for example, and there’s related research in that area happening at Princeton — there is at least one universal issue to deal with in most partnerships: time.
“The biggest common issue is, everybody’s overextended,” Burrus says. Companies have people working long hours with varying degrees of resources; faculty and student researchers have their academic commitments. Meanwhile, time ticks away.
The Office of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations deals with the reality of time pressure by keeping the dialog open, Burrus says. And that is where the so-called soft skills like relationship management come in handy, even when dealing with hard science and corporate bottom lines.
Yes, “there’s a lot of back and forth,” a lot of talking, a lot of details, she says. But like all great relationships that bear fruit for everyone in them, there’s the other side of that equation too; the one that keeps those relationships able to function; and it’s maybe the most uncomplicated:
“We do a lot of listening,” Burrus says.