Making Ideas Clear

Can research engineers be in sales? Should they? And what are they selling? These are questions MSE Professor Jeffrey Youngblood wants his students to consider. He wants to teach them to think in what he terms an “entrepreneurial mind set,”  making their ideas clear and learning to sell them, whether through papers, grant applications, or, quite literally, by translating research into enterprise. The importance of entrepreneurship is a growing emphasis at universities around the world and across the School of Materials Engineering. Here’s a look at how MSE nurtures entrepreneurship—from the laboratory to the classroom. 

Setting Goals
Jeffrey Youngblood was on the ski slopes trying to enjoy the powder when his goggles fogged up—a common problem—and his attempt to clear the lens left an annoying fingerprint in his line of vision. So Youngblood, assistant professor of materials engineering, set his mind to fixing this mundane but irksome problem. He relates that real-world scenarios like the fingerprint in his face help him “find out where the limitations are and design around them.”

Youngblood puzzled over how to make an anti-fog surface that repels oil—like the kind that comes off your fingertips—but that also simultaneously allows water to wet it. Working with the low surface energy of oil and the high surface energetics of glass, Youngblood and his team were able to develop a class of self-cleaning materials “strange enough” to file for a patent. For Youngblood, engineering ingenuity is vitalized by practical application, a tangible end result that solves a problem or improves a process. “For a polymer chemist,” he says, “I’m very much an applied science guy.”

At Purdue, Youngblood works with undergraduate and graduate students. He throws his cadre of undergraduates into the “pie-in-the-sky” projects to see if they can vet a new idea, and then his graduate students take the workable concepts and move them forward. In both instances, practical applicability of the ideas they study. “It’s not just pure scientific exploration we’re doing,” says Youngblood. “If students have an endpoint product in mind, if they understand its usefulness, they will better understand what you [the professor] are talking about.”

Appreciating the salability of a scientific concept is obviously valuable for students heading for jobs in industry, but it also serves those who eventually find themselves working in academia. Youngblood recognizes how important it is for engineers to be able to sell their ideas in the papers they write, the presentations they give, and the grants for which they compete. The ability to communicate ideas effectively is paramount to academic success. “Having an entrepreneurial mindset helps one succeed in the marketplace of ideas,” Youngblood says.

Getting Down to Business
To ensure that his work is successful, Eric Stach, associate professor of materials engineering, is focused on the little details—exceedingly little. Stach teaches a graduate course in electron microscopy and also owns a company called Hummingbird Scientific, which makes the sample holders that fit into transmission electron microscopes.

These two sides of his professional identity—academician and businessman—fit together in a complementary fashion. “My entrepreneurial activity forces me to be more broadly aware of the state of my field,” he says. Scientists from a broad spectrum of industrial and academic settings bring their problems and ideas to him at Hummingbird. From three-dimensional imaging of a virus’ structure to examining the behavior of magnetic tunnel junctions for advanced hard drives, Stach keeps his finger on the tiny pulse of the world of electron microscopy. “I don’t know much about biology,” says Stach (just like the song), “but I get to use my skill set to build what the biologists need.”

Stach is particularly proud to see evidence of his work out in the world. At the recent Frontiers in Electron Microscopy meeting, four of the invited presentations were given by clients who had used Hummingbird’s services. “I go to conferences and see people from industry present their results and know that my company had a hand in their success,” says Stach. “That gives me great satisfaction.”

Straddling the world of business and education does require some delicacy, however. Purdue professors are entitled to consulting time to use on their own outside projects, and Stach is quick to point out that the university implements well-defined measures to make sure all is on the up and up. “I have my own conflict of interest manager, my external work is continuously reviewed, and there are clear procedures in place.” But the university is supportive of such ventures, Stach reports. He finds the process administered through the Vice Provost of Research always to be “clean and well-handled.”

IP in the Classroom
Keith J. Bowman, professor and head of the School of Materials Engineering, sees the inherent business side of the work he and his colleagues do. “In addition to writing research papers we also develop intellectual property that may be of interest to companies,” he says. Securing a patent, particularly one that results in licensing and eventual products, should be regarded as an important recognition of accomplishment, Bowman says.

As leader of the school, Bowman sets a positive tone in his department. He cultivates a culture of support for an entrepreneurial approach to science, enabling faculty to flourish. Youngblood concurs: “The patent and intellectual property development process is a core component of my research.” And he says the school has encouraged his
pursuit of multiple patents.

Bowman also advocates the importance of patents in the classroom. He teaches MSE 250, “Physical Properties in Engineering Systems,” a foundational engineering course for sophomores. “Foundation courses have historically lacked context, leaving students to ask ‘why would I care?’” Bowman says.

In response to this trend, he assigns students a patent to read, chosen to relate to particular course content. An example is patent number 7,108,826, “High compliance, high strength catheter balloons useful for treatment,” which puts a practical spin on the fundamental science of thermoplastic polymers. Students then write a brief paper about the patent, discussing how foundational engineering concepts can be related to the technology in the patent. They talk about intellectual property and what makes something patentable. Best of all, says Bowman, “patents give context and relevance to classic examples in engineering. Students learn that patents are not just about making money.”

Bowman notes that two-thirds of undergraduate engineering students will take their degree into the business world. Learning about patents “increases the potential of students to be more successful once they are in industry. It gives them an advantage compared to their peers who may not have learned about patents and intellectual property,” he says.

- Gina Vozenilek