“Survival of the fittest” describes a form of natural selection that occurs in the face of some real world challenge. For product designers, the challenge is to create new products that have clear market demand and can be affordably produced. That can be easier said than done. So the question is, can we better prepare students so they hit the ground running after they graduate and join a company?
“We asked ourselves, how can we involve students in the conceptual stage of product development,” said Shawn Williams, VP R&D at Rogers Corp. “Traditional collaborations between corporations and educational institutions use sponsored research and experiential, co-op opportunities for students. That’s good, but we need to take the next step. We need to find a way to facilitate and reward creative product design within the academic environment and connect it to real, commercially viable products.”
A logical starting point was the Rogers Corporation Innovation Center, located in Northeastern University’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. Launched in 2014, the Innovation Center is a unique academic-industry partnership that builds closer connections between academic research, industry know-how, and technology commercialization. The Center’s goal is to develop commercially-viable breakthrough innovations in advanced materials to address global challenges for clean energy, internet connectivity, safety and security
A conversation between Williams and Dr. Sara Wadia-Fascetti, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies, led to the creation of a new course at Northeastern – Survival of the Fittest – focused on product development and commercialization. The course brings together interdisciplinary teams of engineering and business students supported by Northeastern faculty and Rogers’ scientists, engineers, designers, and product managers. For the first class this spring, 83 students applied for 16 positions.
The student teams are challenged to select a technical/commercial opportunity and develop it into a workable business plan. Rogers provided a list of product ideas that are of commercial interest to the company, from high level concepts to application specific products. Employees brainstormed across divisions and came up with 50 different ideas for the students, including:
• Consumer robotics
• Next generation materials for integrated circuit packaging
• New materials for home and automotive applications
• Large format sensors
Student teams choose an idea from the list and then learn about Rogers, it’s technical expertise in high performance materials, and its diverse range of customers and their applications. The teams then define, refine, and validate opportunities through market and technical analyses, modeling, and prototyping.
At defined points in the course, “product reckonings” occur where teams pitch their ideas, advocating for continued development of their ideas. A panel of industry and academic experts determine whether the idea should receive additional resources for further development (“persist” according to Eric Ries’ lean startup model), whether it should be modified for a better “fit” between the product and market (“pivot”), or whether it should be discontinued (“perish”). Team members from discontinued opportunities join the teams working on surviving opportunities.
At the end of the course, the “fittest opportunity” moves over to Rogers for potential commercialization. Along the way, students learn about project management, team dynamics, building successful teams, intellectual property, cost and financial modeling, technology commercialization, and product development in high technology.
“Students are used to mastering material, but this course teaches them to also rely on teammates for crucial pieces of the business plan,” said Williams. “Each team is a mix of majors and backgrounds. An electrical engineering major on the team turns to the finance major for calculation of Net Present Value, for instance.”
Williams continued, “The beauty is that we know this process works because we use it every day within Rogers. Now we’re developing a way for it to work in the classroom, to better prepare the product designers and business managers of tomorrow.”