Northern Michigan University held an open house and ribbon-cutting this morning to officially launch Invent@NMU, a new innovation and entrepreneurial program that gives students real-world experience helping regional clients take physical products from concept to market. Under the guidance of professional mentors, students will develop competitive skill sets related to design, manufacturing and marketing.
“This is an opportunity to play to the strengths of NMU,” said NMU President Fritz Erickson. “The university offers a wide range of degree programs in the disciplines involved in creating hardware products and getting them to market. Tying together these resources and complementing our diverse curriculum with real-world experiences will provide a clear competitive advantage to our students as they enter the workforce.”
Invent @NMU is housed in the former mBank building at 1400 Presque Isle Ave., across from Cohodas Hall. It welcomes students, individual inventors, start-ups and existing companies with innovative ideas, but who lack the experience and/or resources to fully execute the process.
“We plan to concentrate on hardware-centric, manufactured goods that require low start-up investment—generally less than $100,000—and could feasibly progress from concept to market in under a year,” said founding director David Ollila. “Our focus is on smaller ideas that typically wouldn’t receive assistance moving through the process otherwise. We’re not interested in owning the intellectual property of the inventor. We’re providing an affordable channel for people to make an informed decision about whether to move forward based on factual data and qualified feedback.”
An individual can walk into Invent@NMU with only an idea; a business plan is not required. For a flat fee of $75 for students and $150 for the public, the staff will help to complete the initial validation phase. The individual will receive a folder with the following contents: results of a survey on such factors as target audience and lifetime revenue potential; the score the idea received from an advisory panel composed primarily of NMU faculty and academic department heads; and an intellectual property report that details comparable products, if they exist, as well as pricing. Those who elect to proceed to the ideation stage and beyond (commercialization, production and ultimately operations) will pay an hourly fee of $20 for students and $30 for the public.
“Invent@NMU is not duplicating what other entities are doing related to economic development,” said Robert Eslinger, special assistant to the NMU president for economic development and director of the Center for Innovation and Industrial Technology. “The university’s goals are to enhance the student experience, increase enrollment, graduation rates and job placement, then boost the regional economy. It may serve as an occasional feeder to a Smart Zone or other incubator, but our measure of success isn’t job creation; it’s how much students are learning. The hope is that this program will also help to reduce the export of youthful talent from the Upper Peninsula.”
Eslinger said advancements in 3D printing, flexible manufacturing and access to global markets are changing the way companies are formed and products are made. The Invent@NMU facility is equipped with a 3D printer, appropriately named Napkin to reflect the fact many ideas are first jotted on the back of one. It also features a conference room with videoconferencing capability, large monitors that can project computer content and a lower-level workshop for tinkering and developing prototypes and “hobotypes” (inexpensive mockups using readily available materials).
While the students working at Invent@NMU will not earn academic credit, they will be paid as employees and gain valuable knowledge in how to effectively support product development and operations.
“It’s a great opportunity to apply what I’m learning in the classroom and to get experience working in my field before I leave college,” said Rachel Griep, a mechanical engineering major and Invent@NMU student employee. “This is considered a job, not an internship, so it gives me a foot in the door to a mechanical engineering career. I’ll be able to show how I’ve helped a product make it to market and the connections I make along the way will be very valuable.”
Ollila added, “This is a unique approach that couples the unbridled creativity of talented NMU students with the experience of seasoned professionals. In addition to mentors on campus and in the community, Northern has successful alumni working in related fields worldwide. We want to utilize their expertise, so we are building a group of professional contacts willing to engage in brief video exchanges to help us work through problems or issues that may arise.”
NMU students contributed to the building’s interior renovation. The NMU Constructors helped to transform the former bank teller windows into a flat countertop in front of the four student workstations. An art and design student created an infographic that spans the front wall above the former drive-in window and illustrates the entire process, from ideation to operations. Other students’ product designs hang on the walls. For added inspiration, there is even a historical photo in the lobby showing four prominent inventors with Michigan ties: Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Ed Kingsford.
For more information on Invent@NMU, call 227-MAKE (6253) or visit www.nmu.edu/invent.