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Houston expert: How to build a research consortium

Building a consortium is a model that increases productivity both as a way to provide financial support and as a way to have a large group working on a single goal and to build a consistent cash flow to support a graduate research program. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Most principal investigators spend many hours laboring over proposals to fund their research programs – and for good reason. While competing for funding is the big business for researchers, some have opted to fund their programs in other ways, like building a research consortium.

The word "consortium" means a group of individuals, companies or governments that work together to achieve a specific purpose. Research consortia are generally partnerships between institutions and industry, where several companies in a specific industry sector will pay an annual fee to be a part of the university-led consortium. In return, the university will research solutions to critical problems identified by the company and provide critical research data.

Considering a consortium

Professor Paul Mann, a geologist at the University of Houston, has successfully run a consortium of energy companies since 2005, funding up to 20 graduate and undergraduate research students every year. He routinely brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in funding and has students working on solutions for geologic problems in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and the circum-Atlantic margins.

"Academic research consortia are a great way to fund research programs long term," said Mann. "Each company puts a certain amount of money in to fund a specific project and it creates a smoother cash flow to support students."

According to Mann, who runs the Conjugate Basins, Tectonics and Hydrocarbons Consortium, building a consortium requires a much different skill set than managing a taxpayer-supported, public grant through federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Since consortia are partnerships, in-person visits, relationship-building and trust with the sponsoring companies are key to building a successful one.

And instead of submitting routine technical reports, professors who have consortia visit companies, make presentations and meet one-on-one with their partners.

"We rely on companies for their continued funding, so we visit them in person as a way of building trust and transferring information. In meetings, we share what we are finding out, they share their knowledge and we both come away at a higher level of understanding," said Mann. He also transfers information to the company through summer internships or students who become full-time employees following their graduation from UH.

Mann also partners with researchers in the petroleum engineering program at University of Stavanger in Norway that is led by Professor Alejandro Escalona. Escalona completed his Ph.D. and postdoctoral study with the CBTH project at The University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and is now head of the Petroleum Geosciences section at Stavanger.

Find sponsors for your consortium

Building a consortium provides many opportunities for industry partners to get involved. A consortium also provides a flexible, project-based structure and allows partners to come to the table when they have a specific project that needs to be explored.

Other than joining as an official partner to support a project, companies can partner with academia to provide data sets for students to research.

"Data from industry are generally superior to anything that academia can collect because the industry has the resources and infrastructure to develop and support the highest level of subsurface imaging of the deep sedimentary basins that we use for our studies," said Mann.

"Students can work directly with critical industry data sets to accomplish the goals of the project. In return, the data provided increases its value through our interpretations and analysis which benefits the company that provided it."

Get other partners

Another way industry can contribute is through technical support from industry service companies that provide software for the consortium to use in their studies.

"Software helps accomplish complex analyses and provides students a chance to use cutting edge methods in their research projects," said Mann.

This investment transfers back to industry, he adds. As students graduate, they enter industry with strong experience working with the software. They then can promote the use of the software and train others in the company in its applications.

"Software evolves at a fast pace so keeping up requires significant effort," said Mann.

Build credibility with industry

To keep your consortia going, it must bring value to industry. This means providing successful applications to practical problems, such as exploring the subsurface in the search for hydrocarbons, according to Mann.

"We end up on applications – how can we use the science for practical benefits?" said Mann. "The students are exposed to the A-Z science value chain.'"

Performance benchmarked by publications builds credibility with companies, adds Mann, who requires doctoral students to publish three peer-reviewed articles on their dissertation research and master's students to publish one article on their thesis. He also involves students in site visits or Zoom meetings with companies to present the findings of the project. This gives students a chance to investigate summer internship and employment opportunities.

Since the CBTH project moved to UH a decade ago, CBTH-supported students have published 96 peer-reviewed, first-authored articles.

"Theses and dissertations tend to collect dust on shelves in libraries or languish in obscure digital archives, while published papers that are widely accessible online or at sites like Research Gate are at the forefront of the global dialogue of science," said Mann. "I tell the students that their published articles will be their legacy to the pool of human knowledge, so make sure you advance your work to as close to perfection as possible".

Build credibility for your consortium

According to Mann, students in the CBTH also regularly place in the annual poster competitions. Since 2013, they have won 138 awards.

"By the time our students graduate, they are masters of the 'graphical arts' that are based on a variety of software used to maximize the impact of their data and interpretations," said Mann. He said they also attain a high level of confidence, either presenting oral presentations in front of larger groups or poster presentations to smaller groups. The communication skills and confidence they gain serve them well, he said, throughout their careers.

These competitions also help to elevate the status of the UH Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department, which is currently ranked at number 54 in the U.S.A. by U.S. News and World Report.

Along with winning other competitions, Mann said these top performance activities really help establish credibility within the field and that will draw more interest in the consortium.

"Everyone in academia and industry values and respects peer-reviewed articles published in the top geoscience journals. With the electronic age the science dialogue has accelerated, so figuring out where the cutting edge is currently located can be a challenge," said Mann.

The Big Idea?

Building a consortium is a model that increases productivity both as a way to provide financial support and as a way to have a large group working on a single goal and to build a consistent cash flow to support a graduate research program.

Public grant funding tends to be on shorter time scales and that can make the multi-year funding for student projects more challenging, according to Mann. But once established and producing results, a research consortium is a solid model for supporting your students.

Watch this interview with Paul Mann about creating and running a consortium

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, is the executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Common Desk, which has locations across Houston, has been acquired — and other innovation news. Rendering courtesy of Common Desk

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

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  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
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  • No. 43 – Math Performance
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Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

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“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

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