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 Engineering & Business Team up

By J. Michael Lillich

Marie Thursby in the Innovation Realization Laboratory's "tool Kit-building" class. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)

The Krannert Graduate School of Management and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are putting engineering and management students together to produce graduates with the skills to transform academic research into marketable products.

The effort is called the Innovation Realization Laboratory: Integrating Science and Engineering with Economics and Management. Purdue and the NSF are combining their efforts to the tune of more than $4 million in what aims to be the most rigorous and long-term science/engineering-business collaborative education program in the nation. 

The project, which started fall semester, puts doctoral candidates in engineering and the sciences who are in the thesis stage of their academic careers into teams with master's degree management students for two years.

The innovation lab is the brainchild of Marie C. Thursby, the NSF grant principal investigator and a Krannert Graduate School of Management professor whose areas of research include the economics of innovation and university patent licensing.

Innovation Realization 
Laboratory Projects and Teams

Fault Detection and Isolation

Using diagnostic sensors in smart cars to detect, isolate, identify, and forecast breakdowns.

Theodore M. Kostek, doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering

Brian T. Krum, MBA student

Noel G. Marsden, MBA student

Personal Translation Assistant

Developing a handheld electronic language translation device that uses the best features of existing electronic dictionaries and machine translators.

Chapman Flack, doctoral candidate in computer science

Linda J. Miller, MBA student

Lesley A. Miller, MBA student

Rapid Tooling and Knowledge-Assisted Design System

Using computers, tools, and polymer processing methods to reduce the time from initial concept to market for new products.

Alexander Lee, doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering

Dan A. Carney Jr., MBA student

Mark Sepeta, MBA student

Digital Video Compression and Video Quality Measurement

Compressing, measuring, and delivering highest-quality streaming video to be sent over the Internet

Jennifer Talavage, doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering

Noel G. Marsden, MBA student

Brian T. Krum, MBA student

Micro CO2: Software for Designing Carbon Dioxide-Based Air-Conditioning Systems

Advancing the state of the art in CO2, rather than conventional refrigerants, in air-conditioner system modeling.

Thomas M. Ortiz, doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering

Dan A. Carney Jr., MBA student

Mark Sepeta, MBA student

Cellulolytic Enzyme Mimetics Making Renewable Fuels Production Economical

Improving the economics of producing ethanol from corn while minimizing pollution.

Nathan S. Mosier, doctoral candidate in agricultural and biological engineering

Lesley A. Miller, MBA student

Linda J. Miller, MBA student

"Most science and engineering doctorates go into industry today," Thursby says. Their only realistic option to learn the high-level business side of technology is the after-the-fact MBA. "The biggest problems in research and development are not technical but rather in integrating business and technical issues."

In addition to Thursby, the Purdue co-principal investigators for the NSF grant are Louis A. Sherman, professor and former head of the biological sciences department; Warren H. Stevenson, associate dean of engineering and professor of mechanical engineering; and William R. Woodson, associate dean of agriculture and professor of horticulture. In total, 23 Purdue faculty members representing six Purdue departments are involved in the grant.

"The innovation lab is one of the most interesting interactions at Purdue," Sherman says. "I try to stimulate our life scientists to consider entrepreneurial activities and to recruit students who are interested in combining basic research with implementation of their cutting-edge research in the marketplace."

Thursby and her colleagues are out to narrow this gap between academic research and the marketplace. "With the innovation lab, the doctoral students gain an awareness of business issues while they're doing their thesis research," Thursby says. "The idea is not for themarketplace to direct the research but to illuminate the commercial implications and allow the possibility that value to society can influence the research while it is progressing."

All the doctoral students take a three-week applied management class. Then, they and the management students together take a fall semester class that Thursby describes as "building a tool kit." That "kit" includes market and competitor analysis, patent searches, teamwork, diversity, ethics  all the basics necessary to build a business plan. In the second year, the students put business plans into writing.

"We'll also bring in consultants, the NSF, and industry representatives," Thursby says. 

"Another component of the class is the teams comparing and contrasting their research. The intellectual property and regulatory issues are very different in, for example, bioengineering versus electrical and computer engineering."

The students have dedicated space and equipment on the seventh floor of the Krannert Building, where they work on the marketplace implications of the thesis research.

Jennifer L. Talavage, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering, is writing her thesis on improving video images transmitted over the Internet and measuring their quality. She is thinking of looking for applications of her research in the entertainment or the medical field, but she is open to other ideas.

"It's a great opportunity to learn how to introduce my research topic to the market," she says, adding that she hopes her innovation lab experience will point her research to a topic that is marketable. "I want to learn the secrets."  

Talavage and the other students receive free tuition andan NSF stipend that is generous by graduate student standards. The master's degree students also get tuition remission and are paid for their laboratory projects, as well as for working in Purdue's Office of Technology Commercialization.  

The management students are learning the language of high-level science and engineering and the art of communicating and dealing with their practitioners that will serve them well after graduating into an economy where high-tech is becoming ubiquitous.

Smart Startups

The program's small interdisciplinary teams of smart, young, technology-savvy entrepreneurial types sound like the dynamic of the small, high-tech start-up companies that have done so much to power the economy in the last decade.  

That's no accident, according to Thursby, who says the innovation lab emulates the small high-techs.

Two years ago, when he was a Krannert School MBA student, Gabriel Odeh participated in the pilot program that preceded the innovation lab.  He is now a manager for Ciena Corp., the optical networking company based in Linthicum, Md.  

Odeh and another management student worked on a team with two doctoral candidates in electrical engineering on applications and commercialization of products based on the light-emitting diode. He credits his experience with getting him started in the optical networking field, even if his team never finally brought a product to market.  

"That class was a wonderful experience. Not only did it give me the technical knowledge to jump into the optical networking field, but because we had to do everything, it made us ask the basic questions about technology commercialization: What products can we make? How do you design products? What is the pricing model? Who are the competitors? How do we get products out the door? How do you get potential customers interested? Whom do you sell products to? We were applying firsthand the principles of marketing, finance, and strategy we were studying in our management classes."

If I decide to go off on my own, I know what makes venture capitalists tick, what they're looking for, and the returns they want, Odeh says. I also learned the value of a solid team and that any member who lacks the necessary vision is a weak link.

License to Succeed

Clearly, this is not graduate school academics as usual. It does reflect the huge increase in universities licensing and patents, which have at least tripled in the 1990s, says Thursby, who is also the executive director of Krannert's Technology Transfer Initiative.

In fact, the Innovation Realization Laboratory grew out of the Technology Transfer Initiative that began with a dialogue between Thursby and Alan Peterson. Peterson, a CPA, chairman of litigation support consultancy Tucker Alan Inc., and member of the Dean's Advisory Council, received an honorary doctorate from Purdue in 1991. He and his wife, Milly, made the substantial gift that put the Technology Transfer Initiative into business in 1993.

"The ultimate goal over five years is to create an educational program that will attract rigorous PhD research scientists and management students interested in transforming basic science and technology into viable marketplace products," Thursby says. If commercial products come out of the innovation lab, so much the better, but the National Science Foundation is more interested in an interdisciplinary model that other universities can use, she says.

Six teams started the program last fall. In addition to Talavage, the electrical engineering student, there are three mechanical engineering students, one computer sciences student, and one agricultural and biological engineering student. Two entering management master's degree students are teamed with each of the doctoral students.

Near the end of the semester, the student teams presented venture-capital-style market and competition analyses for their products. Two vagaries underlay the presentations: the difficulty or impossibility of knowing the number and type of competing research and the difficulty of finding information to estimate the size of potential markets.

Talavage says she's learned that the answers to business questions often are much more open-ended than the solutions to the equations she does in electrical engineering.

"The university is a more interdisciplinary place than it was just a few years ago," she says. "The innovation lab will prepare people to do high-level, marketable work."

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