Nationally Recognized Expert Takes the Helm at Rutgers’ Corporate Engagement Center

Nationally Recognized Expert Takes the Helm at Rutgers’ Corporate Engagement Center

The engagement team will focus on building productive partnerships with a broad range of companies

Corporate Engagement Center associate vice president Sacha Patera (seated right) and her team of frontline officers: (standing left to right) Cherise Kent, senior director; Jaimie Testai, senior manager of industry alliances; (seated left) Doug Mehan, director.
Photo: John O’Boyle

Sacha Patera is the natural choice to spearhead Rutgers’ new Corporate Engagement Center (CEC). Among her many qualifications, she coauthored a seminal white paper on successful 21st-century partnerships between corporations and universities.

Published by the Network of Academic Corporate Relations Officers, of which Patera is a former president, the white paper spelled out the five essential elements that go into effective corporate engagement. Rutgers’ center will leverage all these elements as Patera and her team create comprehensive, mutually beneficial partnerships between the university and a broad range of companies.

“Sacha is the perfect person for this effort,” says David Kimball, interim senior vice president at Rutgers’ Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED). “One of the key attributes of someone who is great in business development is the ability to understand people, to be able to figure out what they need and help them achieve their goals.”

Besides Patera’s wealth of experience in university-corporate relations, Kimball also notes her strong background in the sciences – she holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Brandeis University – which gives her a special understanding of the needs of university researchers.

Jointly established by ORED and Rutgers University Foundation, the center offers what Patera describes as a “one-stop shop” for members of the Rutgers community at all locations looking to forge partnerships with business, and for companies seeking to avail themselves of all that Rutgers has to offer.

Chris Needles, vice president for development at the foundation, first proposed this model for Rutgers based on the success of the University of Michigan’s Business Engagement Center (BEC). With a successful track record spanning more than 10 years and generally considered the most innovative program of its kind, Michigan’s BEC provides an environment easily navigable by businesses and the university community.

Patera says the CEC will work similarly. “We don’t want to be a concierge,” she notes. “We want to be a broker of relationships.” As such, the center will produce long-term corporate partnerships that span disciplines, schools and programs in all collaborative arenas: sponsored research, technology commercialization, recruitment, executive education and philanthropy.

“Collaborations will no longer be just one-offs, where a single faculty member works with a company and it’s just a transactional relationship between the two of them,” says Kimball. “Instead, the CEC will be generating a huge amount of interaction, building complex, long-term relationships between Rutgers and individual corporations and changing the way corporations look at the university.”

Christopher Molloy, chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the former head of ORED, reaffirms the importance of the “one-stop” approach. “As a scientist and executive in the pharmaceutical industry, I saw interactions with higher education firsthand,” says Molloy. “They frequently involved multiple university contacts, often not working in concert, and that can be tough for businesses to navigate.”

In contrast, the center will have “a coordinated strategy to engage companies,” continues Molloy. “The result should be very positive – not just regarding business engagements for research and career services interactions, but also generating philanthropy that benefits the university in a major way.”

As it happens, Rutgers offers virtually everything a corporate engagement center needs to be successful, including location. “We’re at the heart of the financial and industrial world,” says Kimball. “The corridor between Philadelphia and New York holds a massive amount of opportunity.” He adds that if the University of Michigan’s Business Engagement Center can succeed in a state with one of the country’s most challenged economies, generating some $148 million in corporate investment in fiscal year 2018, the outlook for Rutgers is extremely promising.

One important factor, says Needles, is the university’s ability to leverage connections with alumni in high-ranking corporate roles – and the foundation will be instrumental in identifying those connections. Rutgers has more internal strengths, however, particularly in the two biggest areas that corporations need universities for: future hires, embodied in the number, diversity and excellence of Rutgers’ student body, and a large, high-caliber faculty conducting cutting-edge research across a wide range of disciplines.

The timing is also propitious. “Many businesses are expanding in this favorable economic climate, and with the unemployment rate at historic lows, Rutgers students are in great demand,” Needles observes. “And while government funding for research remains flat, corporate research funding to Rutgers has increased by 25 percent per year over the last four years. The potential for accelerating this growth is enormous.”

Shaped by what she calls “the wisdom and guidance of mentors and colleagues across the country,” Patera has the experience to make the most of Rutgers’ strengths. Previously senior managing director for corporate relations at Dartmouth – and having spent, prior to that, 20 years building partnerships at Northwestern University – she brings to her new position “a collection of best practices from many institutions and earlier roles.”

Kimball praises Patera’s inclination to “look for a solution in which all parties come out ahead. That could be research funding that helps a company solve a critical problem, or student fellowships in exchange for access to Rutgers’ highly developed student talent.”

In addition to partnering with companies in the tristate area, Rutgers is beginning to deepen its connections with alumni and friends within the burgeoning Boston-Cambridge life sciences community, where opportunities for research collaborations abound.  

“We have some ambitious goals,” says Patera, “and I think they’re very realizable with the group, and the support, that we have here.”