“What we’re able to do, by bringing together these different groups, and by observing what’s motivating for students right now and in a growing way, we’re able to put topics on the table that maybe universities and companies would not look at in such a focused way…Topics that will have an impact on society or the environment of the local community.”

Kirsten Williamson is the founder and CEO of Petrus Communications, a company that works to bring companies together with university leadership, faculty, and students. Kirsten has been involved in the creation and implementation of boundary spanning initiatives that address goals of stakeholders, including The Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC) Industry Forum and the Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge. According to Kirsten, the key factors driving success in boundary spanning activities are the clear identification of a problem, an extensive understanding of the motivations of different groups, the availability of financial resources, and personal and professional networks that are open to newcomers.

Kirsten’s role as a Spanning Boundaries agent  

Kirsten’s boundary spanning initiatives have included multiple high-profile events that bring together businesses and university leadership, faculty, and students. These events can be centred around a specific topic or goal, or a broader one such as innovation in engineering higher education. Although Kirsten has been involved in the implementation of dozens of boundary spanning initiatives throughout her career, recent ones include:

  • The Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC) Industry Forum;
  • The Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge;
  • The Dassault Systèmes Innovate for Sustainability Challenge.

What is Kirsten’s main motivation?

Kirsten is driven to span boundaries between universities and businesses by a desire to positively impact society as a whole, and particularly regions struggling with economic development like the one she grew up in. She believes that this can be done through the provision of quality education (especially STEM education) that is in line with the needs of companies, through providing individuals with information about opportunities, and by giving them the chance to interact with both education providers and employers. In doing this, students can more effectively apply knowledge and skills learned to local/national/regional/global challenges, as well as achieve personal growth and development. She uses her company to achieve these ends as well, stating that it is important to her that her employees “learn and grow and develop as a result of the work they do while they’re at Petrus Communications”.

How important is having specific knowledge, skills or traits?

Kirsten highlights observational skills which allow individuals to identify needs in their environment that have been addressed inadequately. She secondly emphasizes interpersonal skills, since it is the responsibility of the boundary spanning individual to understand different groups and bring them together in a way that they feel comfortable, but allows them to “take a step beyond their comfort zone”. Empathy, or the ability to “dig deep” and truly understand what others are thinking and feeling is a crucial skill when spanning boundaries, according to Kirsten. In her case, it is one she was able to develop due to her marketing background.

What are some drivers or success factors for a fruitful cooperation between academia and industry?

Kirsten stresses that a lack of understanding of the motivations and perspectives of other groups can be a major barrier to successful boundary spanning activities. Additionally, a lack of funding can be a significant barrier, and Kirsten mentioned the struggles that she and her company have in securing funding for collaboration activities, which has sometimes prevented them from initiating or maintaining activities. Networks limited to only one group can also pose a challenge when trying to identify and connect with relevant stakeholders – a key step in the collaboration process. In terms of drivers, stakeholders don’t necessarily need to have the same motivations when collaborating, however, when these varied motivations lead to stakeholders striving to solve a common problem or address a common need, collaborations are more successful. When building economic/innovation ecosystems, geographic proximity is important. Kirsten gave the example of the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in Boston, USA to illustrate this. The CIC combines startups, venture capital firms, and others in one location and encourages interaction between the groups. Kirsten further cites the involvement of a collaboration “champion” who can build critical support for collaborations, especially in the early stages.


Kirsten was interviewed by Monica Collins (Institut Mines-Télécom Business School)