Is It Doable AND Marketable?
What do you get when you form a group of business and engineering students and faculty members and ask for a state-of-the-art product development with an identified market?
That was the question in mind when faculty from the Center for Wireless Telecommunications (CWT) established a Business Engineering Team to explore projects that would thoroughly integrate the business and engineering skills of the team members.
"Since its inception, CWT has been a business and engineering group, and we were looking for a way to enable students to interact across the disciplines," said Willard (Woody) Farley, Jr., assistant director of the Center. "The overriding principle was that we wanted our students' education to include not only engineering skills, but also experience on interdisciplinary teams.
"We wanted them to understand that a wonderful engineering idea is no good unless it makes sense in the marketplace. Therefore, the work could not be just an academic enterprise, but had to be based on reality," he said. "So the team's goal was to develop an application that could result in intellectual property, then be licensed."
If a team project were to result in a commercially viable product, it would be transferred to the commercial sector. "Wireless technology has been advancing at such a fast pace, and many companies in the industry are small and do not have the resources for large R&D groups," explained Joe Sirgy, a professor of marketing and member of the Business Engineering Team. "If our projects end up being useful, that only helps the industry," he said.
The team has undertaken several projects, and has involved both MBA and MSEE students. One project, completed in 1997, involved the development of a wireless headset.
"Probably the biggest challenge was defining the end product," said Ryan Bosley (MSEE, '97), one of the students on the team, and currently a design engineer for RF Micro Devices. "Coming up with our target market and defining how to design toward that end seemed to take up the majority of our time. Once we had a baseline of parameters, things flowed more smoothly."
"We went through a number of exercises, including determining what expertise and facilities we had, and what would make sense," said Farley. "The question for the engineers was, can it work? And the question for the marketing team was, would it sell? The eventual answer to both was, yes," he said.
From the business point of view, Sirgy said, "Our marketing analysis involved determining if there is a demand for a wireless headset with certain unique features. Through this analysis and study, we guided the efforts of the engineers to develop a specific technology that could be successfully commercialized."
A working prototype was eventually developed, which is currently awaiting some minor enhancements. The concept has commercial potential, but is probably not patentable, according to Christie Thompson, a research associate in the Pamplin College of Business who was involved in the licensing analysis.
"This type of team effort is a bonanza for the students," Sirgy said. "It sets the stage for multidisciplinary skills, and ties together what they have learned. The engineers learned that they can't do good solid engineering without knowing how it would be commercialized and used in the marketplace, and the business students learned that they can't do marketing without understanding the technology."
Bosley agreed. "I learned how important it is to keep the business end of things in mind," he said. "I also took away a great sense of what it is like to work on a 'real' project, rather than just another contrived, academic problem."
Ahmet Ekici (MBA, '97), now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, enjoyed what he calls the "power" of working on a strong, interdisciplinary team. "We marketers had a better chance to formulate our marketing plans because all our technical questions were answered by the engineers. With such technical support, we could formulate our marketing plan more accurately," he said.
He also described the evolution of becoming a cohesive team. "At first, the engineers were coming up with design ideas and asking us whether or not it was 'business like.' Soon, we were asking whether an idea was 'doable.' Eventually the question evolved to whether something doable was also 'marketable.' Once we had positive answers to that, we had reason to believe the project would be successful," he said.
Pankaj Lal (MBA, '97), who also has a BSEE, particularly appreciated the creative dynamics between the two disciplines. "Experiencing the trade-offs between engineering and marketing was very beneficial," he said. "The engineer wants the solution to be technically elegant and perfect, and the marketer wants it simple and on time." Lal is currently involved in sales and marketing for LaBarge, Inc., of St. Louis.
Another lesson learned was appreciation of other disciplines. "We on the engineering side joked at how we came into the project thinking that the business folks didn't do much in the way of technical analysis.... but in the end, they were probably more organized and did more technical market analysis than we did circuit analysis," Bosley said.
"I already understood the limitations of time and resources in engineering," Lal said. "However, in engineering there are definites. It works, or it doesn't. In marketing there are gray areas; there are no absolutes."
CWT plans to continue developing opportunities for more projects,
and a formal course based on a similar structure is under discussion.
CWT - A Business/Engineering Model
Since its inception as a Technology Development Center of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) in 1993, the Center for Wireless Telecommunications has been a joint engineering/business group, with the business arm called the Space and Wireless Business Center (SAWBUC).
"This collaboration between engineers and business experts was meant to strengthen the services that could be provided to businesses utilizing the CWT to get their products to market faster, cheaper, and with greater quality," said Eileen Heveron, who serves as liaison between the CIT and university research centers. "As it has evolved, this model has proved highly successful," she added.
Companies looking to the CWT for technological assistance have also received marketing, finance, information systems, legal and other expertise from Virginia Tech's resource base. At the same time, business students and professors have been examining CWT technical developments for commercialization potential. "This has speeded up technology transfer, and helped Virginia businesses at the same time," she explained.
The CIT is developing a new generation of centers to be called Technology Innovation Centers, and because of the CWT experience, funding preference will be given to proposed centers that have established a collaborative working relationship with a college or university business school within Virginia, or one of CIT's Entrepreneurship Centers. "There is no arguing with success," Heveron concluded.