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Business Roundtable

Innovating the innovation process

Joint business-engineering program allows students to innovate to solve corporate problems

By Anne Ju

Companies seeking teams of innovators with equal parts technological prowess and business acumen need look no further than Cornell's Business of Science and Technology Initiative (BSTI).

Launched this year by Cornell's Johnson School and College of Engineering, BSTI brings major technological companies together with teams of Johnson School and engineering students, who collaborate with the company to innovate new technology-based products.

Panelists, left to right: BSTI team members Marc Meunier, Accelerated MBA, class of 2007; Grant Meyer and John Mannion, both PhD students in Applied and Engineering Physics; Andreas Wankerl, operations director, BSTI; Ray Yingling and John Spoonhower, directors, Kodak External Alliances, Office of the CTO.
Speaking at the event, John Spoonhower said, "Interacting with these people has been a great deal of fun but also really productive, because we talk the same language." Yingling agreed, noting, "This has been a very good experience with some excellent deliverables."
Panelists, left to right: BSTI team members Marc Meunier, Accelerated MBA, class of 2007; Grant Meyer and John Mannion, both PhD students in Applied and Engineering Physics; Andreas Wankerl, operations director, BSTI; Ray Yingling and John Spoonhower, directors, Kodak External Alliances, Office of the CTO.
By "innovating the innovation process," companies get new business ideas that they cannot totally generate on their own, while students get to flex their innovation muscles, says BSTI business director Richard Shafer, who recently stepped down as associate dean for corporate relations at the Johnson School.

The pilot program is led by Eugene Fitzgerald, a visiting professor at the College of Engineering and the Johnson School and a materials science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Andreas Wankerl, BSTI operations director; and Shafer.

Program leaders say the companies are easily recognizable multinationals and that two team/company matches are already under way this year.

BSTI is a new model in which the companies present a problem or specific need, and the right teams of students are selected to take a fresh look at how to solve the problem. That eliminates the inefficiency of a company fishing around for the right technology, the leaders explain.

Andreas Wankerl
Andreas Wankerl
"It's not just the innovation process and not just commercializing technology," Shafer says. "It's actually figuring out how that process is morphing and changing."

A typical BSTI team consists of two MBA students, two PhD or MEng students, and one engineering professor with expertise in the field. The projects are about a year in length and involve several sessions between company officials and student teams.

"Since these projects cover things that are important to the company, they need to be approved at a pretty high level in the company," Wankerl explains.

Fitzgerald, who worked at AT&T Bell Labs after getting his PhD from Cornell in 1989, became interested in starting such a program because of the changing climate of companies' innovation efforts. The large-scale, expensive research laboratories built years ago by companies like AT&T are not financially feasible in today's environment, Fitzgerald explains. BSTI officials are convinced that companies will, and should, look more to universities for their innovation needs and to streamline the process.

Professor Eugene Fitzgerald
Professor Eugene Fitzgerald
"We ask, 'What are your needs in innovation?'" Fitzgerald says. "'What do you need to do?' And places like Cornell and MIT are awesome resources for solving these problems. We can pull together teams that can innovate in areas that a company by itself can never do."

The new BSTI model augments the technology-transfer approach, Shafer says. Usually, technology developed at universities gets marketed to companies, which may or may not choose to pick it up. BSTI complements this by bringing the market pull for technologies to campus.

Companies have also traditionally maintained relationships with universities through sponsored research programs – for example, the longstanding ties the College of Engineering has with such companies as Xerox and Lockheed-Martin. The BSTI initiative is a more targeted approach to innovation, program leaders say.

Originally published in Cornell Chronicle, April 11, 2007. Reprinted with permission.