Luis Perez-Breva: Prototyping Technology Innovations — Tinkering, reasoning, and experimenting: Innovation is a process.

MIT Lecturer Luis Perez Breva

Some people think that the first step of innovation is asking for $10 million. We have grown accustomed to the idea that landing that kind of money from a granting agency or a venture fund is a prerequisite to execute on an idea for a new technology or market —or for that matter, even come up with a good idea in the first place.

No wonder we see gaps.

Last month at MIT the participants in the SkTech/MIT Innovation Workshop 2012 demonstrated there is another way to get started.

The workshop, which I designed with my colleague, Professor Charles Cooney, professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and faculty director of the MIT Deshpande center for Technology Innovation, inaugurated the pioneering cohort of Skolkovo Tech students. Esablished in 2011 in collaboration with MIT and the Skolkovo Foundation, Skolkovo Tech is a private graduate research university outside Moscow. We conceived this workshop as a pilot of the new model of SkTech’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) for engaging industry and embedding commercialization impact in higher education.

Over the next four weeks, 20 participants from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skolkovo Tech),10 from other Russian universities (MIPT, Bauman, ITMO, Tomsk Poly) including two faculty, six from Asian (HKUST) and European universities (Imperial College, ETH Zurich), and four from MIT took part.

The purpose of this intensive workshop was threefold: to create a foundational experience in E&I for all, to empower participants to identify and solve real-world problems with technology, and to instill an entrepreneurial “can-do” attitude in the culture of this first cohort. Participants engaged in experiential learning to prototype whole technology innovations. That is, they iterated all the components of an innovation: the problem solved, the technology to solve it, the possibilities for impact, and the vehicle to bring the proposed innovation to life.

Over 62 people from across MIT contributed to the success of the workshop—including faculty, speakers, and advisers. Professors from the Sloan School of Management gave lectures on entrepreneurship, marketing, and team leadership; faculty from the School of Engineering presided over labs and engineering leadership activities; and contributors from the humanities linked impact and advocacy with strategic writing.

This is a key concept to understanding the approach we proposed: technology innovation transcends academic silos. Innovation requires teams with a broad skill set and different kinds of expertise.

In the first week of the workshop, participants embarked on what we call “quick success projects,” which got them accustomed to tinkering with technology. Many of them had very little practical experience with the technology projects we proposed. But with guidance from faculty from the School of Engineering magic happened right away. In five days, participants tamed a robot, simulated a power system, restored the vision of a computer, and built a component of an electric car (among other things), all with minimal prior knowledge. Working on these projects boosted the participants’ confidence and proved to them that the best way to overcome “technology fright” is to have fun with technology.

Next came a bigger challenge. I presented participants with five open-ended problems in the field of Information and Energy such as: “How can you become energy independent?” or “How can you transport reality to the Internet and control reality from anywhere?” We helped participants form cross-discipline teams, and for each project we prepared “starter” technology and impact kits.

The kits included parts readily available off the Internet. The idea was to reproduce the limited access to resources entrepreneurs and innovators may face. Kits included parts such as Arduinos (an open source micro-controller platform), pieces with which to prototype a smart grid, or state of the art machine vision code. Each kit contained parts worth well under $500.

The kit also contained information to trigger an exploration of the options for impact. This included some guidance on how to put together a website for their ‘imaginary startup’, examples of companies operating in a space adjacent to the project, and additional considerations about the nature of the impact associated with similar innovations.

I gave each team a clear goal: own and refine the problem by iterating the technology and the impact. They had two and a half weeks to come up with something tangible (a technology prototype), something thorough (a report leading to concrete next steps), and something inspiring (a presentation). At the end of the two weeks, teams presented their innovation prototypes to faculty and members of the MIT community.

To stage this experience we created a new lab concept, an Innovation Prototyping Lab in which teams could meet anytime of the day, tinker with technology, and plan their fact-finding missions; and where we would provide access to additional “kits” as needed by each team. According to some participants, we created the perfect “garage in a lab.”

The prototypes the teams came up with were pretty amazing. One team created a scale demonstration of the problems associated with developing and controlling a smart grid. Another group came up with a system for monitoring the movement of conference-goers at big industry meetings so that organizers could do a better job arranging booths to maximize the interest of attendees. Still another group developed a mobile app that uses machine vision to count inventory in bars.

Their ideas were good ones, but an innovation is not so without impact. And impact results from adoption of an idea.

Take the team that created the inventory app, for example. They refined their machine vision idea through market research. They discovered that bar and restaurant employees spend the last hour and a half of their shifts to physically count all the bottles of beer and wine and spirits left at the end of the night. It’s a time-consuming and tedious task. In their presentation, they not only demonstrated an app powered by state-of-the-art machine vision to create an easy, convenient way to conduct inventory, they showed actual examples of how the process is done today and outlined the entry market, a development path, and the adjacent markets this first product may help.

This is experiential learning. The experience empowered the students and calibrated their expectations of what is needed to start: it was not millions of dollars, and a lot can be learned in just two weeks. Innovation is a continuum. It’s not just a function of having cool technology or a savvy business plan. Innovation requires tinkering, reasoning, and experimenting, and iterating several components. Innovation is a process.

MIT’s culture is known for cross-pollinating ideas across academic disciplines, industries, and practices. The Institute’s innovation ecosystem has had a huge impact on the local, national, and global economy.* And technology innovation is ripe with opportunities for the School of Engineering and Sloan to continue to work together.

When it comes to innovation, there’s no such thing as a management problem, or a technology problem; these things do not come as discrete issues. They are usually bundled. What is needed to push ideas forward is to educate more people to think and collaborate across disciplines and across boundaries. This workshop allowed us to explain the similarities between conceiving the next research grant and thinking about the next startup. As we incorporate lessons from this workshop into the MIT curriculum, I look forward to creating more experiential learning courses where mixed teams of business and non-business students prototype innovations together.

* Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT

Luis Perez-Breva,PhD is a Lecturer in Technological Innovation at MIT and a Research Scientist in the School of Engineering. He co-directs the Innovation Teams Program with MIT Sloan’s Prof. Fiona Murray and Senior Lecturer Noubar Afeyan, PhD. Innovation Teams is a joint offering of the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering.

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