Mike Schmitt, Amcor executive vice president, offers some direct advice for companies considering a collaborative partnership with a college or university. While it is important to perform thorough due diligence, Schmitt says, leaders should move ahead deliberately.
“Don’t overthink it,” Schmitt says during a presentation at PACK EXPO International in late October. “Make sure your visions are aligned but jump in. There is a real need there. I think the world is changing, and there are opportunities for groups to work together to find industrywide solutions.”
This past year, Amcor announced it would be investing $10.8 million into the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Packaging in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Amcor’s commitment includes investment in infrastructure and building renovations, as well as an endowed chair position in the School of Packaging. This long-term investment is expected to provide meaningful changes for the school, says Matthew Daum, director of the School of Packaging, who joins Schmitt on the stage in Chicago to talk about how the partnership has gone so far.
“The impact is going to be far-reaching,” Daum says. The last time the MSU school’s building was renovated was in 1986 when there were no cell phones or laptops or wi-fi. “Students work differently. We teach differently.”
Schmitt points out that Amcor is one of the largest packaging companies in the world, so it has been committed to being a leader in the industry. “And that really is what was at the heart of the motivation: How do we continue in the leadership position in the industry, especially in the areas of sustainability?”
Over the years, the company primarily handled research and development in-house when looking at sustainability problems, while occasionally partnering with customers or reaching out to venture capital firms and startups to find solutions, Schmitt says.
“It’s been more of a going-it-on-our-own approach,” Schmitt says. “Sustainability is a big enough topic that we felt like we needed to start tapping into some outside avenues and some of that being partnering with a university.”
The company looked at several schools, and the search led to MSU, where they met with Daum and listened to his vision.
“We felt it was the right opportunity to partner with somebody outside of our own company, and Michigan State seemed like the right place,” Schmitt says, adding that MSU attracts some of the brightest students in the country. “We felt it was going to be an opportunity for a real win-win.”
The investment was the first of its kind for Amcor, and it had several areas of interest. One was brand awareness. Amcor is well known among its customers—many are large consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies—but it isn’t a household name, he notes
“The students would not have heard of Amcor, and we saw this as an opportunity to get our name out in front of the students and build some brand awareness,” he says. “The second was around research and collaboration—working with an external partner on trying to accelerate some of the development on sustainable packaging solutions, which is becoming a bigger and bigger topic.”
Changes at MSU
Daum says the breath of collaboration will be important, with one goal involving getting research out of the lab and into the industry faster, while also offering more career opportunities for students. The endowed chair position will specifically focus on issues of sustainability, Daum also says. That role will look at research in the area of sustainability, but in a way that solutions would work across the whole value chain. The solutions need to be scalable and usable, he adds.
“It’s time. We all know it’s time,” he says.
The endowed chair also will be asked to focus on data-driven analysis and involvement with legislative bodies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the public at large to translate information from an academic point of view and become a voice to help in policy matters, Daum says.
While the changes have only just started, MSU is seeing benefits, including excitement and rejuvenation of the program among alumni and students, Daum says.
“And it has created a lot of buzz in academic circles,” he says, especially with the endowed chair position. MSU recently won several large grants tied to packaging sustainability. That was due in part to Amcor’s help with the technical proposal and sponsorship.
The wider university has seen benefits because such collaborative efforts can become a catalyst for investments in other areas, Daum says.
He would like to see companies create more collaborations, adding that he can be reached at email@example.com if companies are interested in learning more.
“Not everyone is in a position to make a large gift like Amcor,” Daum says. “However, a little does go a long way in a university setting.”
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.