Weida Tan was born in China and arrived in Pell City 10 years ago as a 17-year-old high school exchange student. He is now a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), having already earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
But he also is chief executive officer of a start-up company called Fledging, which makes software/hardware solid-state drive replacement solutions for MacBook users. The company came through the UAB Commercialization Accelerator and into Innovation Depot, and his company is now bringing in $65,000 a month and is developing another product.
The Commercialization Accelerator is an initiative of the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UAB, which is now housed, along with the Collat School of Business, in a brand new, $37.5 million, 108,000-square-foot building. The new building, which had its ribbon cutting in August, was designed with input from students and community business leaders and features breakout rooms, an innovation lab, classrooms designed for team-based learning, a high-tech finance lab, sales role-playing rooms, a three-story atrium, an auditorium, a career center and quiet study spaces.
UAB is one of many universities across the country that have established learning facilities billed as innovation/incubator/design centers — focused on multi- disciplinary inquiry, fostering partnerships with industry and bringing in available grants and funding for projects and research. Tan and his company are one example of what can result.
But questions are being raised about whether innovation or “design thinking” can be taught, and articles have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education lately questioning whether innovation centers are worth the money. The folks at UAB think they are.
“It is not just can it be taught, it should be taught much more on a deeper and broader scale,” Tan says. “As an entrepreneur who put my invention through the entire commercialization cycle and making revenue and growth out of it, I have seen so many other peers that have ideas no less disruptive or less profitable with potential businesses, but they didn’t put it through. They could be a fellow engineering student who came up with a design for a new cup holder for a car, it could be an art student that came up with this idea for decorative accessories, it could be a computer science student who came up with this software idea, but none of them put their time or effort or resources into it to make it happen, to push it through the way I did. It is not their fault, because those resources are not that accessible.
“It definitely could be taught, because starting a start-up is not a difficult thing. It is the same experience, and there are a lot of commonalities that could be taught and should be taught. There is no need to invent the wheel over and over again.”
Molly Wasko is associate dean for research, innovation, entrepreneurship and faculty success at the Collat School of Business at UAB. She agrees with Tan that innovation can be taught.
“Of course innovation can be taught,” she says.
“If you look at the organizations that have successfully innovated and succeeded over time, it’s been because they actually have a business process for innovation,” she says. Wasko says the business process UAB focuses on is the one developed by Stanford University’s business school, which is called design thinking and has four different stages.
“When we teach innovation, we teach the model, and the different twist to it is that we actually start teams with a design challenge, so they learn it by doing it. So, for instance, we did a program with McWane Science Center where executives could sign up for a series of four Sunday afternoons,” she says. “They have to actually understand the users they are trying to design for. We have them go out into the museum and do observations and interviews and get to know the actual users, what they like about the museum, what they would like to see differently. So that is step one, actually understanding the museum from a user’s point of view.”
Step two, she says, is defining the problem you are trying to solve, followed by brainstorming or ideation. “That has a whole series of processes as well. Most organizations actually have no idea how to brainstorm. Brainstorming involves trying to generate as many ideas as is possible in a fixed amount of time and considering what resources are available.”
And when talking about innovation, entrepreneurship is usually part of the conversation.
Patrick J. Murphy, Ph.D., was recently named the inaugural Goodrich Endowed Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Collat School of Business.
Murphy has been an entrepreneurship professor for more than 15 years and is well versed in cutting-edge entrepreneurship training and the enhancement of entrepreneurship education through outreach to entrepreneurial ventures, community engagement and program development.
“I would contrast innovation and entrepreneurship in the following way. Innovation is the most early stage part of the process that you can imagine. You have peoples’ experience, peoples’ knowledge, peoples’ activities, peoples’ thinking styles combined with different technologies that are not yet ready for market and different programming languages and different coding and all of the information that goes into that almost like art,” Murphy says.
“After that whirlwind of activity that defines innovation, we have what I call kind of a valley of death that you have to get through before whatever you innovated is ready to take to the market. And then when we think about taking it into the market, we are getting into the realm of entrepreneurship.”
Murphy agrees with colleague Wasko that innovation and entrepreneurship can both be taught. “I like to think of these areas as kind of a discipline, and, like any discipline, it can be learned. And so with innovation, and entrepreneurship for that matter, one of the big things that we focus on when we teach people how to do these things is not be afraid to make mistakes.”
Failure is a recurring theme when talking about innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Errors and mistakes are a big part of the process,” Murphy says. “In fact, just like in the biological or the natural world, where error is like fuel for the ecosystem, that is how it works here. And by error in the natural world, I mean like leaves falling off of trees and snakes shedding their skins, all of which in essence becomes fertilizer for the overall ecosystem. In the entrepreneurial and innovation realms, these sorts of mistakes fulfill the same function and some of our strongest game-breaking innovations have been the most profitable mistakes.”
But, Murphy cautions, “You have to put boundaries around that, because it can get out of hand.”
Tan says becoming an innovator or an entrepreneur requires a certain mindset. “From my personal perspective, it is about how to be persevering, how to be humble, how to be observing.”
Add to that, Tan says, you need a problem-solving mindset and the willingness to take risks. “For example, most of my peers consider their destination is to land a job to live a life that the world expects them to. You don’t have to be that way. If a situation is not good, change it.”
Tan says he thinks a start-up “is a string of failures. Whether we can resurrect ourselves, that is the make it-break it factor. It takes hard work and strong will. Things happen all the time. It is just a matter of how you deal with it. Road blocks are for people who don’t want it enough.”
That philosophy appears to be working for Tan.
“Business is going great. We reached a monthly revenue of $65,000 last month, and, in the primary market, we are on eBay. We are at about 22 percent market share of this $3 million market. We are launching our second product soon, and we are expanding our team. Right now it is five people.”
The late Peter Drucker, a leader in the development of management education, is credited with saying “Innovation is the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”
Alabama may have the resources, but it is number 30 out of the 50 states in innovation and entrepreneurship, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“Our organizations have to innovate,” Wasko says. “My experience here in Alabama is that we don’t have a culture that naturally embraces innovation, like Silicon Valley or Stanford. So we need to learn some new behaviors, and engaging in workshops or different types of opportunities around design thinking where we can learn some new skills, or learn how to change the culture, I think would make a huge difference.
“So, for employers, it is good to recognize that this incoming group of new hires they are going to have is going to be trained in design thinking and naturally be innovative, and how can we help prepare our organizations to embrace innovation and not kill it.”
Bill Gerdes and Joe De Sciose are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and De Sciose in Birmingham.