Product Innovation Course Turns Students Into Inventors

Western New England University developed a co-curricular course in product innovation to immerse students in the product innovation and startup process.
Product Innovation Course Turns Students Into Inventors
AS PROGRAMS IN innovation become more popular with students across all disciplines, entrepreneurial programs at large universities are getting the lion’s share of attention. But smaller universities also are placing greater emphasis on immersing students in the product innovation and startup process.

That’s particularly true at Western New England University (WNE) in Springfield, Massachusetts, where enrollment in its co-curricular course in product innovation continues to grow. What started as a single section with just 30 students in the fall of 2010 has now expanded to four sections enrolling nearly 120 students—about 50 from the business school and 70 from engineering. WNE created the course with the help of a US$25,000 grant from VentureWell, a higher education network that supports student inventors. The university has sustained the growing enrollment through corporate sponsorships and alumni donations.

“We’re now seeing more students from disciplines like engineering and pharmacy minoring in entrepreneurship because they realize they need to understand the innovation process,” says Mary Schoonmaker, assistant professor of marketing with WNE’s College of Business. Schoonmaker, whose background is in both computer programming and business, co-teaches the course with three faculty from the College of Engineering, including Glenn Vallee and Richard Mindek, associate professors of mechanical engineering, and Robert Gettens, an associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Over the fall semester, business and engineering students collaborate on five-member teams to develop ideas into marketable products. Most work on their own ideas, while a few develop ideas submitted by local companies. Company projects have ranged from a thermocoupling device to a heat sensor for heating and cooling systems.

Before enrolling, students sign over to the university the ownership rights of inventions created in the course, Schoonmaker explains. WNE retains the right to file a provisional patent for a year after course’s end; if WNE files a patent, it will share any royalties with the students. However, so far, the school almost always has waived this right, assigning rights back to students.

In December 2015, the school held its first annual Product Innovations Showcase, where student teams from both the product innovation course and the freshman engineering course presented their inventions. The event was attended by local startup mentors, angel investors, and leaders from the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. As a special twist, visitors were given play money to “invest” in the products they thought showed most promise.

The invention that received the most virtual investment dollars at the event was Lectroblocks, a configurable power strip. An outdoor lockbox for home deliveries came in second, while an endoscopic surgical tool and a self-cleaning toilet seat attachment tied for third.

In addition to the Product Innovations Showcase, the school held its first “Startup Weekend” last fall. The three-day event was designed to spark greater interest in entrepreneurship and reach students from more disciplines. This spring, the university held its first three-minute elevator pitch contest, where students competed for startup grants. WNE also sends students to an annual innovation conference and pitch contest sponsored by the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and it now has three teams of student inventors working at Venture Valley Mentors, a regional accelerator.

Says Schoonmaker, “As students realize that they can create their own companies, we want to show them that they’ve got a lot of support on campus and in Massachusetts—that their ideas can have life after they graduate.”