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December 14, 2009

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Matt Bernius

Hi John,

Thanks for noticing our little lab (and mentioning it in the same article with those other heavy hitters). The points you raised about why (and how) companies should take advantage of innovation labs like the Open Publishing Lab at RIT.

From the lab/academic side, collaborative projects allow us to ensure that our programs and curriculum stays in line with the needs of industry. And as you said, this helps talent training and recruitment (and placement of graduates).

How to quantify this is always the sticky wicket. Not only are the results of research always uncertain, but the path of integrating those results into a production/commercialization process (even if it's as a process improvement) can be really difficult. This is not unlike the application of other qualitative tools like ethnography, in the product design process.

One way to think about this is in terms of relative ROI on the quantity of new ideas that are generated and the quality of interactions. When compared to hiring a design/prototyping firm, sponsoring a lab project is a very cost effective way of having ideational work done. As you mention, working together, faculty and student researchers can open up a wide range of new perspectives. However, for a company to capitalize on the investment, it’s important to ensure that the sponsor dedicates the “mindshare” necessary to realize that ROI through fruitful dissemination and discussion.

For example, while there are advantages to going to the lab for project presentations/reviews (especially mid-project), when it comes time for final sharing, we have found that it's best to bring the lab to you. This enables the broadest amount of information sharing and can facilitate valuable discussions (and also cost effective). It also gives the researchers a chance to get to know the sponsor better (and often assists in creating a positive buzz inside the lab, building a company’s reputation among motivated and talented students who will be soon be looking for work). Unfortunately, these types of engaged interactions are often the toughest for companies to support (in terms of both personnel and financial funding). It's very easy for the results of a lab to be lost in the day-to-day operations of a company, especially in tough economic times.

So if I have any advice, beyond stressing the relative ROI of working with a lab, it’s make sure that the plans and funds for supporting the dissemination of the work are clearly built into the proposal and supported by the company right from the get-go.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.

- Matt

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