Chasing inspiration and catching success

Originally published in the 2016 edition of Innovation magazine

Jason Brier has done this before — a lot. He gives his name-age-major intro and the witty description of his southern Indiana hometown no one has heard of. It’s all part of being a student entrepreneur at Purdue University.

As one of 11 students selected for the inaugural Burton D. Morgan Fellowship Program, Brier has dreamed big and taken advantage of several opportunities at Purdue to learn from innovators around the world. He flew to London to meet with the director of user experience and design for Spotify (whom he now considers a mentor), and he attended Chicago Ideas Week and the interdisciplinary design conference called Midwest UX 2015 in Pittsburgh.

“Find a reason to talk to the best people in your field. Talk about their thoughts, their products, and how you can get involved,” says Brier, who is majoring in human centered design and development in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. “All of us within the fellowship have found different ways to get value out of the program. You have the support of Purdue, so this is your excuse to go out and see what’s going on and talk to the people in the know and learn how to do it yourself.”

The fellowship program is housed in the Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program at Purdue, which is led by Nathalie Duval-Couetil, associate professor of technology leadership and innovation. She has shepherded more than 1,500 students through the program annually since its inception 10 years ago. A large percentage of them were enrolled in the College of Technology, now the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

“We work with all departments to create a sequence of courses that works within their majors,” Duval-Couetil says. “We are focused on making it a win-win for the programs and our students.”

As part of the college’s transforming curriculum, there will be an increased emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. As Duval-Couetil and her graduate students have been researching inclusion of entrepreneurship in a college curriculum, they have found that entrepreneurship education provides an efficient means for students to demonstrate how they create economic or social value from their knowledge. Such a curriculum also provides a background in business literacy, which pairs well with technical fields.Increased industry involvement, Duval-Couetil says, also is key to helping students understand the innovation process.

“The more connections they can make with the outside world — vetting ideas with people outside the university — the better they will be. If an idea isn’t sound, we want them to fail fast so they don’t spend a lot of time on things that won’t work,” she says.

The Polytechnic curriculum will link students with Purdue’s larger innovation network. Students and faculty have access to a multitude of resources available to start a company, build prototypes, find funding, get guidance from a mentor and build a team. The next step is creating a framework to incorporate coursework with these resources.In April, the college hosted an Innovation Summit on campus to gather information and ideas for building an ideal innovation curriculum. Requested by Dean Gary Bertoline, the summit was planned by two of the college’s innovators: Lonnie Bentley, professor of computer and information technology, and Matt McKillip, director of research and innovation for Purdue Polytechnic Statewide. They brought together leaders in the field from across campus, the state and the country to discuss the next wave of innovation and entrepreneurship education and programs at Purdue Polytechnic.

“The most rewarding experiences I have had in my career have been working with students who think they have a good idea for a product or a company,” Bentley says. “It’s exciting and it’s encouraging. You immediately know a student has a dream, they are going after it, and they are open to any help you can provide them.”

Bentley and McKillip hoped to collect insights from innovators such as Dennis Boyle of IDEO and Lesa Mitchell (formerly of the Kauffman Foundation) to harness the students’ excitement and reward them for the lessons they learn.

“How do we build a program that would identify, attract and support STEM students with the highest potential to be successful entrepreneurs and innovators? How do you recognize, evaluate and graduate students who learn
by doing in the school of risk, ambiguity and hard knocks?” McKillip asks. The feedback from the participants — educators, innovators, business leaders, alumni — is being compiled to help college leaders plan just such a program.

Expanded curriculum also will be needed to help students and others involved speak the same language. While the words are often used interchangeably, innovation and entrepreneurship are separate parts of the same continuum, Duval-Couetil says. Innovation focuses more on the inputs, such as creativity, ideas, and product development. Entrepreneurship is what one does with the innovation to bring it to market.

Bertoline has taken his definitions from the book “Educate to Innovate: Factors that Influence Innovation,” by Arden Bement Jr., former director of the National Science Foundation and faculty member at Purdue; Purdue Provost Debasish Dutta, and Lalit Patil, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois. They differentiate the two terms this way: “Innovation creates societal value (through an existing or new product, process, or service), and entrepreneurship involves realizing the market value of an opportunity, not necessarily an innovation, by making it commercially or socially viable.”

Students in Purdue Polytechnic and across campus already are active along that continuum, creating new products and services, and navigating the Purdue system of entrepreneurial resources. Jason Brier’s experiences with business leaders have opened his eyes to a world of possibilities that he wants other Purdue students to have in the future. He says he especially sees strong benefits of connecting students to innovative alumni.

“Innovation at Purdue can only be as good as innovation being circulated in or out of it. Alumni could get a lot out of our students and students could get a lot out of them,” Brier says. “They could contact someone in the Purdue Polytechnic and ask for 15 of our best students for a student project. We’re getting better at that. If we can open up the avenue of cooperation between alumni and students even more, more students will be impacted by alumni involvement, and that will improve our experience in innovation.”

As Purdue continues to see successes in commercialization activities, and with a clarified University policy about student intellectual property, innovation and entrepreneurship activities will grow across campus. Purdue Polytechnic administrators hope their students can take full advantage of the resources while incorporating the knowledge into their academic portfolio. Updates about the Innovation Summit’s recommendations will be posted in the Newsroom section of the Purdue Polytechnic website.