On January 24, OARS hosted Innovation at Miami and Beyond. The event included a plenary session in which innovators from around the Greater Cincinnati region shared their insights and advice. These innovators – Brian Cobb, Chief Innovation Officer of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport; Summer Crenshaw, co-founder and COO of tilr corporation; Jody Gunderson, Director of Economic Development for the City of Hamilton; and Darrin Redus, Vice President and Executive Director of Cincinnati Chamber USA’s Minority Business Accelerator – also participated in a panel discussion moderated by Jim Oris, Miami University’s Associate Provost for Research.
Oris presented a session titled “Leveraging Academics and Business: A New Approach for Innovation at Miami University.” Burr Zimmerman of Urban Venture Group (UVG) presented a session on applying to federal STTR programs and Miami University associate professor of microbiology Xiao-Wen Cheng shared his experience in the I-Corps@Ohio program.
Here we cover highlights of the event through four quotes from the day’s presenters.
1. On why innovation matters: “Innovation is about creating value, not innovation for innovation’s sake.” – Summer Crenshaw
For Crenshaw, co-founding tilr was about transforming the cycle of poverty, rather than disrupting the human capital solutions marketplace, although the algorithm-driven platform has begun to do that too. A Miami alumnae, Crenshaw was raised in a trailer park by a steel-worker father and a mother who never finished tenth grade. As a result, she is acutely aware of the biases – socioeconomic, educational, racial, ethnic, and otherwise – that often prevent skilled applicants from being hired. Tilr creates value for both job-seekers and employers by shifting the focus from applicants’ experience to their skills and eliminating the interview process. This means, for example, that a qualified applicant is not eliminated from consideration for a job simply because the hiring manager doesn’t know how to pronounce their name and is therefore reluctant to call to schedule an interview. The result is value to job-seekers in the form of expanded access to positions and to employers in the form of an expanded talent pool.
Crenshaw’s sentiment was echoed by nearly every other presenter, in one form or another. Darrin Redus, who works to connect entrepreneurs with resources they need to bring their ideas to the marketplace, put it this way: “Does your customer care about your ‘cool’ technology? If not, is it really innovation?” That’s exactly the sort of question Xiao-Wen Cheng said he was challenged to answer as he worked to validate the market potential of his highly accurate rapid influenza test through the I-Corps@Ohio program. STTR, the federal government’s program to encourage commercialization of technologies developed at universities is, like I-Corps@Ohio, similarly concerned with how inventions will be received in the marketplace. “STTR is not about tech for tech’s sake; it’s about filling a need in the marketplace,” Burr Zimmerman said during his presentation on the program. The bottom line, according to Redus, Cheng, and Zimmerman, is that it is not the mere existence of something new and shiny that matters. Rather, it is the value the new and shiny thing brings to people – how it can help them be healthier or safer, save money, connect with others, or feel more fulfilled.
2: On how innovation happens: “Look through the lens of what’s relevant but disconnected.” – Darrin Redus
Redus argued – and research confirms – that sourcing ideas and talent from all corners of a community benefits businesses and consumers. But, he said, many people with good ideas – particularly people of color – are not plugged into traditional channels, so even motivated organizations can have a hard time making meaningful connections. According to Redus, the solution is to look beyond existing networks. The example he cited was of a company in the healthcare industry that wanted to tap into diverse talent and become more innovative. Redus suggested they reach out to the National Medical Association (NMA), a historically black analog to the American Medical Association. The NMA was certainly relevant to the healthcare company Redus was working with, but it was disconnected from the networks of the company’s leaders, until Redus suggested the link.
In his presentation, Jim Oris said that universities’ traditional method of technology transfer suffers from the same problem. In this so-called “push” approach, technologies are developed in isolation and shopped around to prospective buyers. Because inventors rarely know much about what is in demand in the marketplace, this approach tends to be high-effort/low-reward. Oris has led a break with tradition to begin employing a “pull” approach to tech transfer at Miami University. Miami’s new LAB – an acronym for Leveraging Academics and Business – connects inventors and entrepreneurs at a crucial stage in the development process and supports them as they work together to produce market-relevant technologies. An early example is the Miami University-AFRL Research Technology Commercialization Accelerator. As part of this project, Miami faculty and students have assessed a portfolio of 937 technologies, ranked them for potential viability, conducted market research, and developed business plans and design prototypes for some of the most promising. Oris predicted that two new patents and three-to-five viable products or businesses will initially result from this collaboration. Such results will demonstrate the LAB’s success in connecting previously idle intellectual property to businesses and consumers who find them relevant and beneficial.
3. On how the potential of innovation becomes realized: “This is not a transaction. It’s a relationship.” – Burr Zimmerman
In advising participants on applying for funding through STTR programs, Zimmerman said it’s important for principal investigators and their teams to develop relationships with technical points of contact (TPOCs) and other key program personnel. Applying for an STTR award is not like buying a gallon of milk from the grocery store. There’s not a virtually endless supply of awards available to anyone who can afford to “pay” for them. For one thing, figuring out whether the technology the applicant offers in exchange for the award is sufficiently valuable requires the professional judgment of reviewers. For another, the supply of awards is anything but endless (Zimmerman said less than 15% of applications result in awards). Every award, then, is a vote of confidence for the applicant, a signal that reviewers believe in their ability to carry out what they’ve proposed and that the results will be worth the investment. Insofar as people are generally more comfortable offering that kind of support to someone they know rather than to a stranger, it is wise for STTR applicants – and anyone entrepreneurially minded – to help the people who control the resources they need access to get to know and understand them. Zimmerman said any entrepreneur who is more comfortable in the lab than on the phone might consider complementing their skills by adding people who enjoy networking to their team.
For his part, Jody Gunderson emphasized the role of collaborative relationships in economic development. He challenged the popular perception of economic development as a competition. Using a metaphor, Gunderson said that economic development is traditionally viewed as a savannah populated by lions and gazelles. With each sunrise, the lions are compelled to chase the gazelles and the gazelles are compelled to outrun the lions (or at least the slowest gazelle!). But in his view, economic development is about possibilities, not competition. He said development results from realizing the possibilities inherent in endeavors like placemaking, small business development, workforce attraction and development, and community promotion and marketing. Realization of those possibilities relies on functional relationships between a community’s citizens, its businesses, and its institutions.
4. On what the next frontier of innovation might be: “Someone has to analyze the data and figure out how to use it to accomplish goals.” – Brian Cobb
During the panel discussion, Jim Oris asked Cobb and his fellow plenary speakers to predict the biggest technology disruptor for 2019. All of them mentioned the maturation of big data from collection to purposeful application. Cobb shared an example of data enabling display of real-time – rather than static – information about wait times for trains passengers use to move between terminals at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). In his plenary session talk, Cobb also shared how smartwatches are being used by personnel at CVG to share information about housekeeping service needs and task completion. In both cases, the analysis of data enabled strategies for improving customer satisfaction.
The analysis of big data is improving the customer experience at other businesses as well. Gunderson cited the example of Spooky Nook at Champion Mill, a mega sports complex being built in Hamilton. Spooky Nook’s founder, Sam Beiler, told Gunderson that analysis of data they have collected at their existing facility near Manheim, Pennsylvania shows customers begin forming opinions about their overall experience while they are still in the parking lot. That information will be used to inform development of the Hamilton facility with an eye toward maximizing customer satisfaction.
Aside from customer experience, Crenshaw said she sees the potential for business data to improve quality of life within communities. For instance, she said, analysis of tilr data about which job offers applicants decline, and why, could reveal “holes” in local transportation systems. Public transportation service providers could then use that information to add or change routes to better serve people in those areas.
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.
Photos by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.