I don’t meet many startups that aren’t looking for money and all of them could do with introductions to people that can help them. Academics are an overlooked source for both.
Tired of giving away equity for cash?
Try grants instead. Lots of us don’t bother to apply for grants because of the administrative burden. Academics are often expert at exactly this discipline. They also often need partners to apply for the amazing variety projects and programs offering funding.
Labster.com is one of my favorite examples of startups that substituted grants for equity funding early on. I’ve worked on projects with several universities who handled the admin for the project partners. You want people with these skills to advise your startups.
Access to talent
Hiring is a bear. Qualified staff are hard to find and hard to sign. Networking is one of the best tools for solving both the problem of finding talent and convincing them to join your company. Academics can help with both tasks, especially if you’re looking for specialists or fresh graduates. Cultivate them.
Access to visiting VIPs
All sorts of interesting people stop by universities. Some come to see other VIPs. Some come looking for the next big thing. This goes for individuals, be they experts in specific niches or big name gurus, all the way across the spectrum to delegations from other universities and innovation-seeking corporates. The academics are often good at the matching game.
Access to test subjects and partners
Need data? Ask someone with access to a large, interesting population of potential test subjects for help. Need test partners? Academics are all about tests and testing. I think academia seems like an obvious place to look for help finding both of these, but I’m always surprised by the trouble academics have finding someone with whom to dance. Go ask them.
Ignoring academics is a mistake
Academics have access to a lot of what startups need – and what other mentors need as well. They can give you access to resources, talent, and network. They need partners, data, and network from outside academia. They may not look like the startup people you’re used to dealing with, but don’t discount them.
You may think you know what’s happening on campus, but remember, so did Myspace.