Thursday, October 11, 2007

BIF-3: Ellen Levy - Ask the Right Questions

Ellen Levy, a Silicon Valley veteran who has worked at companies like Apple and Softbank Venture Capital, built her new firm, Silicon Valley Connect, on the principles she learned while Director of Industry Collaboration and Research at Stanford's Media X. Media X is an industry affiliate program that liaises between industry representatives and the university.

Upon arriving at Media X, Levy quickly realized that "the university" was a complex ecosystem and not a single entity. For outside businesses, interacting with the university in a manner that was beneficial to their goals was not always a simple task. Levy realized that the key to getting things moving in the right direction was to ask good questions.

She decided that Stanford needed a virtual reorganization around ideas (which was plausible, where a structural reorganization was not). Using common tools of engagement (requests for proposals, graduate student funding, focus days, conferences, and meetings and correspondence, Levy was able to build the Media X program to a peak of 25 partner companies with a minimum investment of $50,000 in the university. Twice she had to close the door to new companies because they had all they could handle. Her biggest innovation was that you have to ask the right questions to get the ball rolling.

Levy talked about an RFP she put together for Cisco and Nokia which was basically a sheet of questions that they had focused on hashing out over a month. By asking who at the university was doing research that informs about how mobile phone applications can be used around the world, Levy received 17 proposals from colleges around the university -- and not just technology focused areas of the school. The right question led to the involvement of the entire university from medicine to law to engineering.

Of course, Levy said, it's all about ROI. But ROI doesn't mean the same thing to everyone involved and has to be translated accordingly. For businesses, it means return on investment, for universities in means research of interest, and for the government it means results of importance. For everyone, the bottom line is: what can we get out of this?

Levy left the audience at the BIF-3 conference, with three guiding principles the she learned from her experience at Stanford:

  1. Start with good questions. The question, said Levy, is the universal language.
  2. Relationships over transactions. Translate why people should be at the table together.
  3. Sufficient metrics don't yet exist to measure what you get out of the network effect (which says that every time to add someone to your network, everyone in the network benefits).

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