I used to have long conversations with people from industry attending academic conferences, which would go very well, but during which I would grow ever more frustrated. They would be very friendly, express gratifying interest in my work, but in the back of my mind I would be thinking: when are they going to offer to support a collaboration? They never would. Finally, I would get up the courage to raise the subject myself. And often they would respond very positively.
As reluctant as academics are to raise the crass subject of money, it doesn’t even seem to occur to industry people. That seems counterintuitive, but perhaps they feel they’ve left all that behind when entering the ivory tower precincts of an academic conference. Little do they know. At any rate, the big secret of success in obtaining funding from industry is very simple: You have to ask.
Now you don’t have to blurt out “Show me the money!”, even if after an hour of pleasant, but free, conversation you feel tempted. You can sidle up to the subject. You can inquire if their company ever works with universities, or if it has a program for funding university research. You might tell them about other collaborations you have, or about a government program for matching industry funding.
You are probably not a natural born salesperson. It may offend your sensibilities to raise the subject of money. I admit, it isn’t my favorite topic of conversation, and the whole process can, irrationally, even feel a bit demeaning. But remember your grad students back home whose funding is running out, and suck it up.
The worst that can happen is that they say “no”, and that’s where you are already if you don’t ask. In fact, they may well like the idea, and even if they have to say no, may do so apologetically.
So don’t be afraid to ask.