Soft skills for the initial meeting with an industrial partner

Trade fairs and networking events are valuable points of contact for KIT researchers to address potential industrial partners for collaborations and to expand the initial contact. Here are a few communication tips for the acquisition meeting.

Traditionally, KIT presents itself every year at the Hannover Messe, the largest German industrial fair, with application-oriented research topics and technological solutions. Researchers from a wide range of institutes present their innovative approaches for the industry of tomorrow and actively seek industrial partners for cooperation. The search for partner companies is similar to the classic acquisition process. Once the initial contact has been successfully established whether at the Hannover Messe or another event networking is followed by an initial in-depth acquisition meeting with details of requirements and competence profiles.

Both sides come together, get to know each other and sound out whether the business problem and scientific expertise fit together. Basically, the aim is to create a basis for deciding whether the two parties would like to work together on a particular development or project. The following communication tips for KIT scientific employees can help to present oneself and one's own expertise in the best possible way in the interview.

Play it safe

Do you and your contact agree that an in-depth exchange should take place regarding a desired collaboration? Then clarify in advance to what extent confidentiality must be regulated. Depending on the depth of information to be exchanged about a specific project or the further development of certain research results, it is advisable to conclude a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the contact. This agreement protects both parties against the contents of the discussion, know-how or internal information being passed on without their knowledge. Conclude an NDA with your discussion partners before exchanging concrete thoughts and data. DE RECHT supports you with a draft NDA and the appropriate preparation of separate clauses or contracts.

Mohamed Hassan /

Adjust to your counterpart

If you have a specific appointment with a potential industry partner, find out in advance which people will be taking part in the discussion. It makes a big difference in the way the conversation is conducted and in the type of information provided, for example, whether a person from innovation management, development or management is sitting across from you. This is because, depending on the position, your discussion partner will assess the potential of a collaboration from a different perspective and will make the decision for or against based on different parameters and facts. Therefore, make sure you are well informed about the function and background of the person you are talking to and prepare yourself accordingly. If the contact was made through one of our innovation managers, he or she can help you with this initial target group analysis. Compile a checklist of the most important statements and key questions for your counterpart in advance so that you can communicate clearly and routinely during the conversation. These preliminary considerations may eventually be incorporated directly into an agenda for the interview, which you share with the interviewer in advance.

Mohamed Hassan /

Use limited time

As a rule, only a limited amount of time is available for scanning in the non-binding initial consultation. Here, it is recommended to rely on the 1/3 - 2/3 rule for the share of speech. In concrete terms, this means: As the "solution provider" of KIT, do not talk for more than one third of the meeting time and leave the rest of the time to your discussion partner. Give your counterpart enough space and ask as many questions as possible to find out the problem of the potential industry partner. With this arrangement, you do not run the risk of dominating the conversation in a form of self-presentation. By listening attentively to your interview partner, you show that you take him or her seriously.

Correctly asked

To find out what the company's requirements are, it helps to ask specific questions. The form of the question usually influences the information content of the answer. Open-ended questions i.e. with W-question words such as what for, wherefore, with what, why, or how are particularly well suited to gathering as much information as possible and steering the course of the conversation. The advantage of open-ended questions is also that they give you some time to think. While your interviewer is answering, you can already formulate the next question in your mind, for example. 

When asking questions, be careful not to ask several open-ended questions one after the other without letting the other person have his or her say. Since people often only respond to the last question asked, some important questions may go unanswered. Closed questions, known as yes-no questions, are helpful if you want to clarify individual points or exchange technical details by asking further questions.

Mohamed Hassan /

Show competence as a problem solver

Often, a specific technology presented at a trade show or conference or published in a paper is only the initial point of contact for a more intensive exchange. Use these opportunities to be visible in the field. The more channels you actively use, the higher the chances of being "found" by potential partners. 

In the agreed acquisition meeting with the industry, the focus is then not on pure "sales", but it is more important to position yourself as a "problem solver" in the relevant specialist area . Therefore, it is not a knock-out criterion if your technical solution is not 100% mature or not all functions are equally well solved. In research, technological solutions are classically created with an early degree of technological maturity and a lot of development potential. Convey to your interviewer how you can contribute your expertise to solving the problem at hand. 

Focus on how you can help the potential industry partner solve its technological goals. In doing so, highlight not only the technical solution, but also the benefits in the respective application. Ask specifically about the current (technical) challenges in the company and use examples to explain how you could contribute to finding a solution. The more vague your statements are, the more likely this could lead to dissatisfaction on the part of the potential partner. Ultimately, the goal is to contribute to the further development of the partner company's products and services through synergy within the framework of the collaboration.

Mohamed Hassan /

Set your own focus

Whether it is a research contract , joint development cooperation, or the transformation of the latest research results into innovative products in the context of a transfer project KIT offers numerous points of contact for cooperation. Before the appointment, be clear about which forms of cooperation are possible for you and your institute. Even if the most logical form of cooperation usually emerges from the requirements and goals during the conversation, you can set a clear focus during the acquisition meeting if, for example, a certain form of cooperation is ruled out for you.

For technologies in an early stage of development, the focus may be more on evaluating the technology, for example, to make "business-oriented" decisions for further development of the technology. For more mature technologies, the focus is more on finding a partner for deployment, with the goal of jointly developing the technology further. In the case of application-oriented collaborations, the chances are good that the industrial partner will become a licensee for a patented technology in the medium term.

Obtain market perspective

Especially in application-oriented research, impulses from industry can be very valuable for the further development and orientation of research questions. Therefore, any exchange with people who are well versed in an industry is a welcome opportunity to obtain complementary information about the market. Here, in addition to general data such as market density and volume, growth and barriers to entry, the "pain points" of the ultimate clientele or user base are of particular interest. After all, a new technical solution usually only gains acceptance if it meets the needs of the users and offers a significant advantage or improvement in the process.  With the help of the industrial perspective of your discussion partner, you can verify the unique selling propositions and the technical benefits of your solution. For example, ask your counterpart about this: Does the solution address a clearly identifiable customer need? If not, what features, characteristics or functions are still missing? What added value would the technology bring over competing solutions? An external assessment can reveal any weak points that you can take into account in further development.

End at the same level

The acquisition meeting is characterized by a great deal of information, and possible expressions for a possible cooperation. It is therefore advisable to summarize the key messages again at the end of the conversation, for example in a protocol: 

  • Do the problems of the industry partner and the scientific expertise match? 
  • What overlaps are there? Do the skills of both partners complement each other?
  • Is there a fundamental interest in an initial joint project?
  • Have documents that are subject to confidentiality been exchanged? If so, how are these to be handled in the further course and when additional persons are brought in? 
  • What form of cooperation is preferred and to what extent?

A concrete offer does not have to be made directly at the end of the first exchange. Both sides should allow themselves enough time to reflect on the conversation and decide whether the interlocutor is suitable for cooperation. It is much more important that you and your discussion partner leave the conversation with a concrete result, such as agreeing on a follow-up appointment or exchanging further documents in the follow-up. The next steps should be clear to all participants at the end of the conversation.

Mohamed Hassan /

Keep on the ball

For the follow-up of the meeting, it is helpful to directly note down the points that have to be taken care of afterwards, such as internal agreement on the topic XYZ, organizing a follow-up meeting, or obtaining / passing on further information. If very concrete agreements about a cooperation have already been made during the interview, you can initiate the preparation of the offer according to the KIT third-party funding process. If a binding time line has been agreed with the discussion partner, then keep to this and the agreed deadlines as best as possible. If you would like to win over the industrial partner, then keep in touch after the meeting, promptly deal with further queries and provide him with the information that will positively support the project initiation.

Support desired? 

Sponsored projects, cooperations, or orders from industry are a popular source of third-party income for KIT. In addition to the monetary value, such forms of cooperation are also an important factor for transferring research results directly into application in the business environment. Those who become active themselves as scientific employees and go in search of industrial partners in a targeted manner increase the chances of additional income and technology transfer.

The service unit Innovation and Relations Management (IRM) at KIT supports you in technology transfer and accompanies the acquisition with the following services, depending on your needs:

  • Support in the search for development partners 
  • Support in the marketing of technologies and initiation of contacts with the help of technology offers 
  • Mediating moderation and support during industry talks
  • Support in needs analysis and project calculation, primarily for non-technical questions
  • Information on questions regarding possible forms of cooperation and associated formalities associated with KIT
  • Clarification on how to deal with IP within a cooperation 
  • Support during the application process for funding projects and, if desired, advice on how to optimize the application process
  • Support in negotiating cooperation and license agreements
  • Support in (funded) innovation projects and in ongoing project controlling
  • In case of complex projects and cooperation constellations, IRM offers support in processes involving different service units of KIT, e.g. IRM + LAW + EVM .