About the University
by C. L. Stambush
It doesn’t discriminate between age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, education or economics. It strikes at the oddest times, and in the oddest places: taking a shower, walking the dog or lying in bed. There’s no way to force it into the light of understanding; rather, it lingers at the edge of revelation and aha. While it’s central to humanity’s future, at its purest state it can’t be physically held.
It’s an idea, the basis for INNOVATION, the driving force behind today’s evolutionary technology and the key to success for five participants in USI’s recently launched Eagle Innovations Accelerator (EIA).
The idea of innovation often conjures up images of isolated entrepreneurs toiling away in basements or garages, developing the next world-changing device. But, getting an innovative idea to market requires more than a workspace. Inventors need guidance through the process of establishing their ideas and launching startups. The EIA is that catalyst—a 14-week program designed to mentor inventors as they transform visionary inspirations into commercial realities.
While EIA is a first for USI, the University is, and always will be, a committed leader in the development, establishment and cultivation of the entrepreneurial mindset. It’s in our DNA. Teaching students the value of risk-taking, problem-solving and big-picture thinking is at the heart of all we do.
When the first five EIA teams (including USI faculty, students and community members) came together in spring 2015, their inventions ranged from products to assist the handicapped, lull babies to sleep, keep food warm, determine an idea’s commercial viability and eliminate unsightly cables and cords in homes and offices.
Collaboration and shared ideas are key to the success of the accelerator. Participants met weekly, first as a group and later individually, in the co-working space at USI’s downtown Innovation Pointe. Dr. Jason Salstrom, USI technology commercialization manager, facilitated and mentored each group through the process.
It also takes dollars to get an idea off the ground. EIA participants can receive up to $15,000 to launch their startups. Successful endeavors repay seed money, ensuring the program’s ability to reinvest in future innovations. But if an idea fails, the inventor isn’t obligated to repay. The seed money is made possible through a $3 million grant USI received from Lilly Endowment Inc. to promote economic opportunities through educational collaboration.
The process of innovation involves a multitude of intricate steps from focus groups to patenting a product, all of which fall into one of five phases: ideation, evaluation, experimentation, commercialization and implementation. While each step involves assessing, pivoting and planning, every invention’s path to success is a bit different. Each of these stories highlights one aspect of the five phases of the innovation process.
Interested in becoming involved in Eagle Innovations Accelerator as an investor, donor, mentor or participant? Visit usi.edu/outreach/eagle-innovation/eagle-innovation-accelerator
Jason Derrington’s life had never been easy. He’d been in and out of trouble, disappointed family members and was generally directionless until January 5, 2010. On that cold winter night, he was shot in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The simple things most of us take for granted were no longer part of Derrington’s world. He’d not only lost the use of his legs at 26, but also the ability to easily care for himself in a public restroom. “I was in an airport bathroom and thought, ‘I can’t attend to myself, and I’m a grown man?’”
The problem was one of access. At home, he had an elevated toilet seat that provided front access for cleaning, and while it was better than what’s offered in public stalls, it still didn’t meet his personal need, which was a product that allowed side access.
Confronted with this loss of dignity, Derrington—not a USI student but a community member—started sketching out ideas to bring independence and dignity to others’ lives. He arranged to have his idea created in a CAD drawing, and began talking to everyone he could to further develop his idea: Easy Reach. He attended Startup Weekend Evansville 3.0 at USI, what he called “a learning foundation,” but it wasn’t until he was accepted into USI’s EIA program last spring that his idea began to take shape as a feasible business.
Within the innovation, there are two key components in an idea becoming a relaity: a desire to make something happen, and the freedom to explore ways to do so. Derrington has consistently shown the determination needed to propel his invention through every stage of the process, while USI’s EIA has provided the support, funding and guidance necessary to make it a reality.
“Innovation really boils down to strategy. My strategy is surrounding myself with the right resources that I can utilize to help me build my product, whether it’s talking to a banker or a mentor from USI, the director of HealthSouth or the patients themselves,” Derrington said. “It takes networking in the proper channels to get to each step. And, of course, a little bit of passion and motivation.”
He received a full patent for Easy Reach last year, and it was pilot-tested by HealthSouth Deaconess Rehabilitation Hospital for patients experiencing a variety of health issues—from obesity and paralysis to instability, pregnancy and post-surgery—and earned the hospital’s endorsement. He’s currently seeking to license his product through a medical supply manufacturer, or find an investor to help mass produce Easy Reach.
Next step: evaluation
Teaching feasibility analyses (part of USI’s entrepreneurship minor) led Dr. Jack Smothers to discover a need for a logical and methodical approach to increase a product’s likelihood of success. Much like a detective, entrepreneurs ask questions, gather evidence and make feasibility assessments based on that evidence. Students in the program don’t learn theory; they practice the pursuit of entrepreneurial ideas, encountering numerous hurdles along the way.
“When I began teaching this experiential course, I quickly realized there is not a tool available on the market that will help entrepreneurs logically follow an idea to completion,” said Smothers.
Competitors’ tools help develop a business plan or marketing model, but none guides inventors through important steps such as market research, product development and business operations as a whole. Smothers’ Feasible Idea Test (FITest) software application provides entrepreneurs with a process to do just that.
Employing a flowchart process, FITest walks would-be entrepreneurs through the process of determining customer needs, identifying the invention’s advantages over its competitors, designing/manufacturing a prototype, engaging customers and the overall business financials (revenue, cost of goods sold, expenses and profits). It is also a valuable tool for existing companies planning to develop new products or expand into new territories.
“It’s been an interactive process of realizing which elements are valuable, and which are not, in conducting this type of analysis. There are many different types of analyses you could do but entrepreneurs don’t have time to figure out the correct process for testing the feasibility of an idea, and they shouldn’t have to. FITest clarifies the process so they can focus on the products.”
The order of the process is as important as the steps within it. In phase one (determining the market), if the data doesn’t support the entrepreneur’s initial hypotheses, the product can be modified to make it more attractive to consumers, or dropped entirely in pursuit of a new idea. “It’s very important for an entrepreneur to follow a logical set of steps to validate their idea for feasibility. If they do the steps out of order, they could be wasting a lot of time and money,” Smothers said. “Until you know what all the components of the product will be, there is no point in estimating how much money you will make from it.”
Next step: experimentation
Failure is part of the innovative process, but not all failure results in ending a project. Sometimes it’s more of a roadblock that pivots an idea to become something bigger and better.
For Tyler Fitzsimmons, double majoring in economics and engineering, the innovative process resulted in not one, but two entrepreneurial ideas: Clever Cubes and Ideorex. Clever Cubes was developed during his participation in USI’s 2014 Technology Commercialization Academy. His team, a cohort of students from diverse majors, was charged with finding a commercial application for a patented military product developed by Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center. Clever Cubes is a smart power-strip device that allows consumers to remotely power devices on/off as well as track energy usage to save money and increase efficiency. The idea borrows the technology in a slip-ring devise used on tank turrets that allows guns with electronic scopes to rotate 360 degree without cords tangling.
The simple yet revolutionary idea fueled Fitzsimmons to apply to the Eagle Innovations Accelerator (EIA). While validating the commercial viability of the device, a second initiative was spawned. “Through our process of developing Clever Cubes,” he said, “we realized that every person we talked to had an idea that they wanted to develop and sell, but had no understanding of how to get it past the ideation stage and onto the shelves. We learned we needed to adopt a different strategy for developing the Clever Cubes market.”
Ideorex is that solution, a “new-and-improved version of Kickstarter,” that allows customers to provide inventors with early feedback so they can develop target-specific and desired products. It turns out that one thing people desire is designer control over how their desks, at home and at work, look. “Aesthetics are huge to people,” Fitzsimmons said.
“People want devices that look good.” Beauty, however, is subjective, which is why potential customers are currently voting on Clever Cubes’ shape, color and features.
Fitzsimmons is using Ideorex to tweak Clever Cubes’ design, while simultaneously working out the kinks in both. “Down the road, we want Ideorex to become a household name,” he said. “It’s where you’ll go to create an idea.”
Some might equate the need to pivot with failure, but the entrepreneurial mindset taught at USI stresses that failure is not bad by any stretch of the imagination—a sentiment Fitzsimmons echoes. “I love failure. It will be the success of me.”
Next step: commercialization
The invention Cuisine Caterer, a flameless heat source that keeps food warm in chafing dishes, didn’t happen overnight. Nor did its burgeoning success. Rather, Logan Hayford’s war to keep bacteria at bay began in his first entrepreneurship minor class in 2014, when he and four classmates repurposed Crane’s heat-producing thermal target technology used by military snipers. “We were spitballing ideas for uses of this same type of technology,” he said, “when the idea of keeping food warm popped into my head.”
The catering industry currently uses pans of water, heated by electricity or open flames, to keep food warm. Electricity isn’t always available and open flames are dangerous because they get knocked over and tablecloths can catch fire. Hayford focused his attention on finding a solution—developing the idea further in two entrepreneurship classes: Ideation and Innovation Feasibility Analysis and Business Plan Development.
A computer science major and entrepreneurship minor, Hayford developed a prototype for Cuisine Caterer during an entrepreneurship minor class. Although he doesn’t cook, and has no background in chemistry, he began playing around with a combination of chemicals that would produce a sustained minimum temperature of 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit—the temperature required by the Food and Drug Administration. The ingredients in the thermal-target patents were mixed together to find the right combination of chemicals to produce the desired temperature.
Before taking a third entrepreneurial minor class (Strategic Entrepreneurship), Hayford partnered with a family friend, A. J. Hale, a manufacturing engineer at Berry Plastics. “We mixed chemicals in his garage and house, and got it up to 190.3 degrees,” Hayford said. “That’s higher than we ever expected we could get, so at that moment, both of us knew this was an idea that was definitely going to be a big thing once we found someone to manufacture it.” Hayford and Hale have now teamed with a manufacturer in California to produce the sealed pouches.
The genius of Cuisine Caterer is that it uses a combination of safe, common chemicals to generate a direct-contact heat source, produced when exposed to air. “There are a lot of problems with the chafing fuels currently used, but there’s no better solution right now,” Hayford said. “That’s why we’re trying to disrupt the market and bring in something new.”
Hayford credits all three entrepreneurship classes, as well as participation in the Eagle Innovations Accelerator (EIA), with playing a major role in advancing his idea and entrepreneurial spirit. “Without going through these classes, Cuisine Caterer wouldn’t be where it is today. The entrepreneurship classes teach you to take that leap and not be scared of the consequences; to take a chance and see where it goes.” What’s next on the menu for Hayford? Get it into the hands of early local adaptors—caterers, restaurants, hospitals, schools. If the results are as favorable as expected, they plan to take it to the CaterSource Tradeshow in Las Vegas, Nevada, to generate awareness. “The idea of working for ourselves,” he said, “building our business from the ground up, is what’s driving us.”
Next step: implementation
By the time Bryan Bourdeau got involved with Lullafi—a device invented by Mike Boren that combines environmental white noise, soothing vibrations and delta sleep waves to lull babies to sleep without having to drive them around—many of the product’s kinks had been worked out, but there was still a lot of work to do developing it into a viable business.
Boren discovered the need for Lullafi during a visit to his brother’s home to see their new baby. Despite a house full of baby sleep aids, his nephew only slept if his dad drove him around. Even then, there was no guarantee he’d stay asleep once the car pulled into the driveway. Boren, a professional musician, music teacher, sound engineer and tinkerer, began toying around with a combination of sleep-inducing sounds and vibrations, eventually arriving at the perfect pitch for Lullafi.
Bourdeau, USI instructor in business, knew about the project because he and Boren play music together, and he was intrigued enough to become a partner. While Boren is the product development guy, Bourdeau took over the business end, securing federal certification, creating financial statements, organizing product development, prototyping, sourcing beta-testing opportunities, conducting intellectual property searches and more. Researching the problem and competition, he discovered how large and global the problem is, noting new parents drive an average of 1,322 miles annually in an attempt to get their babies to sleep, spending $800 to $1,000 and countless hours in the process.
To streamline Lullafi, the partners worked with Berry Plastic’s Blue Clover, an innovative offshoot that provides 3-D printing and CAD drawings for entrepreneurial startups. This allowed them to refine the product so it fits in the palm of a hand. Getting it to this point allowed them to show a demo-day at a local children’s store that carries unique items. “We did an in-store demo, which allowed people to provide us with valuable survey information while interacting with Lullafi, resulting in positive ‘aha’ moments for all of us,” Bourdeau said.
Last spring, Lullafi was accepted into USI’s EIA. “Getting into the accelerator helped us focus on the business model and more explicit validation of our value proposition, customer segments and other market-relevant concerns,” said Bourdeau. The seed money from EIA allowed them to hire USI marketing and MBA graduate Brad Warthan ’04 to conduct a 400-source survey and mine the data into a cohesive understanding of their marketplace. The results are positive enough for the duo to move forward and look into manufacturing Lullafi’s casing in USI’s Applied Engineering Center while attending to a host of other details before launching Lullafi.
In the meantime, Bourdeau and Boren have to decide whether to apply for a full utility patent or put it on the market without one. “Our attorney turned up three patents that, if read together, could result in a patent for Lullafi being rejected,” Bourdeau said. However, since none of the patented products perform as Lullafi does, selling it without a patent wouldn’t infringe on those particular patents. “Whether we move forward with or without a patent is a question of ‘What’s that business model look like?’”
While the road to successful innovation may not be easy or guaranteed, in the minds and experiences of the five inventors represented here, it's always worth the effort.
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