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Afternoon Business Innovation Conference 10/6/2009

| On 06, Oct 2009

Ellen Domb

The afternoon program at the Business Innovation Conference kicked off with a great presentation by Thomas Jacobius and Robert Anderson of the IIT Interprofessional Projects Program, which is a very unusual example of academic innovation.   Students at all levels do projects in many different disciplines with sponsors in government, NGOs, non-profits, and small, medium, and large corporations, learning teamwork, project management, customer relationships, and the specific systems and methods needed to solve the problems that they discover in their projects.  See http://ipro.iit.edu/ for details on the program and case studies of some recent outstanding projects.  


IPRO teams have developed water purification systems for impoverished regions, a homerun predictions system for the White Sox Baseball Team, create a museum exhibit explaining the first artificial kidney, create an inflatable greenhouse (not yet implemented), and the Bosnia and Kosovo war crimes documentation project, which played a key role in reestablishing the legal system.   A system that was proposed by students themselves was eMotion, combining hardware (a necklace) with software/social networks to provide a safe environment for young teens to network and communicate.  This project has won several business plan competition and is getting venture capital now.   


Anderson’s emphasis was on intellectual property, and the students’ role as fresh eyeballs in the sponsors’ organizations.   He himself is a fresh set of eyeballs, coming to IIT after 37 years in large, medium, small and start-up industries.   Automotive projects include control systems for electric systems, lighter Li-ion batteries, simpler better differentials, plug-in hybrid systems (that the automobile companies say can’t be done.) His discussion of rule breaking is better than optimizations was a classical TRIZ approach to eliminating tradeoffs  – – my reaction was “maybe there’s hope for academia yet!”  On the other hand, his emphasis on needing to encourage students to get crazy, to use their diversity to come up with wild, crazy ideas, seems based on an old paradigm of creativity, ignoring the systematic innovation approach.


Participating in this session means I missed the sessions on sustainability and on using innovation to strengthen core values–heard a little about them during the coffee break, then went on to “Deploying Controlled Idea Generation and Idea Managment Processes” by Brian Glassman and Abram Walton from Purdue University. 


The paper was based on Glassman’s Ph.D. research on innovation systems in successful companies.  He had extensive data on the practices for idea generation, collection and management, NOT including idea evaluation in companies in a number of different businesses.   The audience got vocal (OK, I got vocal, along with several other people) about how many of these “best practices” were really highly constrained systems that keep ideas confined to conventional channels, which leads to the rather depressing conclusion that we now have extensive academic research on the practices of companies that are engaged in micro- or sustaining innovation, and that the breakthrough processes are the exceptions to the system.  (I missed the simultaneous papers on Design Innovation and on Supply Chain Innovation Dynamics, and heard great things about them.)


The concluding plenary session was presented by serial entrepreneur (8 companies!) Alex Bratton from Lextech Global Services.   His theme was “Opportunistic Innovation” which has three requirements:



  1. Infrastructure (including a willingness to fail and learn from experiments/failures, as well as physical environment, tools,  software, systems, etc.)

  2. Opportunities (including awareness of opportunities created by technology changes, opportunities created by customer DISsatisfaction and satisfaction, ways to help your customers make/get money so that they can afford to pay you for your work, use social networks)  Much of what Alex calls “Opportunities”  would be called use of resources in TRIZ-talk, and much of what he calls “Research” would be called benchmarking/use of effects from outside your industry.  

  3. Execution or “ruthless execution:”  Alex used a lot of the high-speed concepts from the disciplines of Agile software development–you can’t improve if you aren’t doing things.  Don’t let anything be stable.   Many rapid prototype cycles beat few deliberate cycles.   Know when to kill an idea;  don’t let the fact that you’ve spent money/time on something prevent you from killing it if it isn’t moving toward success. 

Audience members loved/hated Alex’s ideas–nobody was neutral.


Praveen concluded the session (and got us ready for the reception) by having the participants introduce themselves.)    Great first day!