Throughout its 150-year history, Purdue has provided a training ground for engineers who, in turn, have delivered innovative solutions throughout business and industry. Lillian Gilbreth, the College of Engineering’s first female professor (1935), worked alongside her husband, Frank, in motion studies to practically invent the field of industrial engineering. Leslie Geddes, the Showalter Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biomedical Engineering, envisioned and delivered health care solutions well into his 80s.
Building upon those legacies, Purdue has made a concerted effort over the last decade to place entrepreneurship squarely within MANAGEMENT reach of faculty and students. Several entities, including the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, the Purdue Foundry and the Office of Technology Commercialization, help ease that path to market. The College of Engineering and the Krannert School of Management are collaborating to turn technical ideas into solid business plans.
In March 2015, Purdue was awarded a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) site grant. I-Corps helps researchers understand the value and commercial potential of their technology and inventions. “It’s based on a lean startup methodology that doesn’t produce a traditional business plan, but helps researchers determine what business model makes the most sense for a particular idea or technology,” says Matthew Lynall, director of Purdue’s NSF I-Corps Site and co-director of the Midwest I-Corps Node, as well as a clinical professor of management in Krannert. “We ask researchers to get out of their labs to talk to potential customers, stakeholders and partners.”
Lynall says that exploration is not to sell the idea, but rather to determine if the problem they’re offering a solution for is real and significant. In partnership with the Universities of Illinois, Michigan and Toledo through its Midwest Node, I-Corps has sent hundreds of teams to the national I-Corps program to conduct their “customer discovery missions.”
Students, having spent an undergraduate capstone course or graduate work refining a great idea, are comfortable talking about technology with peers. Though Lynall says people don’t really care about the technology. Rather, it’s all about what it can do for them. “Additionally, as smart as our researchers are, sometimes they have to be open and willing to accept feedback that may not match their perceptions.”
Since its original inception as a research center in the 1970s, Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering has long been quick to market. “We’re a practical-oriented, highly collaborative and interdisciplinary outfit with a mission to change health care,” says George Wodicka, the Dane A. Miller Head of Biomedical Engineering. “We’ve always encouraged everyone to be involved with not only the research and development of these technologies, but also in translating them out to company partners in an entrepreneurial and partnered way.”
About 10 years ago, a course in biomedical entrepreneurship, known colloquially as “Biomedship,” sought to put young graduate students on that fast track.
Using I-Corps methodology, biomedship brings biomedical engineering and business students together around technologies they are interested in translating. “That’s been a great training ground for our students to see the importance of really understanding a clinical problem and seeking solutions in something marketable,” Wodicka says. “On the flip side, the Krannert students gain an engineering perspective on a complex problem and have to figure out how these two worlds meet to form a successful product.”
Shruthi Suresh and Ting Zhang, two Purdue Engineering doctoral students, thought they had a great idea to help blind and visually impaired people. I-Corps helped them come up with an even better idea to launch a startup moving their innovation into the public arena.
“The I-Corps program allowed us to get out of our comfort zone and understand our invention from a customer perspective,” says Suresh, a Weldon School doctoral student.
He co-founded HaptImage with Zhang, a doctoral student in industrial engineering. Their startup enables individuals with visual impairments to study science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM) and pursue related careers through its real-time image-accessing tool.
“The Purdue I-Corps program provided us the opportunity to understand the customer needs all over the country,” says Zhang. “It also extended our discussion on defining our own value proposition, production channels and key roles involved in the commercialization ecosystem.”