Innovation: Forward thinking

Posted on 27. Aug, 2012 by in Annual Report, Economic Impact, In Depth, Issues, Students

Dean Paul Peercy

College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. Photo: David Nevala

The University of Wisconsin-Madison will formally recognize 2012-13 as the Year of Innovation. As the engineering dean at a major research university, I recognize the importance of innovation in moving research discoveries into society to improve our quality of life and the economy.

Innovation is where great ideas and discoveries are put to work for the greater good. In the College of Engineering, we have been effective in this area, generating more than 100 patent disclosures and several licenses each year. We also are creating spinoff companies based on technologies invented by faculty, staff and students.

We asked some of our top innovators to relate their experiences in their own words. Our 2012 annual report features nine students, faculty and alumni who describe their personal stories of innovation. We asked them a common set of questions: What are the components of a great idea? How did the college and its environment support your innovation? Why does it matter to you, to the university and to the world?

No answers were identical, but many common themes emerged. Innovators tend to be driven by the desire to make something better: to solve a problem, improve a process or fill an underserved need. They also frequently cover uncharted territory, and must accept risk and uncertainty as part of the process. They commonly spoke of the need for persistence and commitment, often in the face of initial failures and skepticism from peers. And they gain satisfaction from seeing their ideas implemented and validated by real-world use.

The results can be transformational. We hear from alumni who have started companies built on university-based work, and those companies have enormous potential for Wisconsin’s economy. SHINE Medical, which is making medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer and heart disease, recently announced plans for an $85 million plant to employ 120-plus people in Janesville. And Virent Energy, the producer of fuels made from waste biomass, already has 120-plus employees and is poised to massively scale up operations with a new biorefinery.

But we’ll also see from these vignettes the importance of innovation as a process, a way of thinking and even a way of life. Eric Ronning, the 2012 student winner of the Schoofs Prize for Creativity, was so inspired by the entrepreneurial process that he decided to take an acting class to enhance his presentation skills. And Justin Beck and Chris Meyer, two alumni who recently won Innovation Days prizes, are both firmly entrenched in Madison’s growing entrepreneurial scene.

Equally important is what innovation means to the life of the university and the nature of inquiry. Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Kristyn Masters describes it as embracing the meandering path. “It’s a mindset that allows you to accept when things supposedly don’t work because everything is part of the larger scheme, the larger process that gets you there,” she says. That path can lead to unexpected advances in the research laboratory as well as the classroom.

Without question, the broadest impact of innovation is taking place in the classroom, where it reaches thousands of future engineers. The college is an established campus leader in technology-enhanced learning. We have captured lecture content online, freeing more classroom time for team learning, student-to-faculty mentoring and technology-infused lesson plans. We have transformed traditional library study space into hubs for interactive learning. And we are working toward redesigning 75 percent of all core courses in a blended format of online and personal instruction. This will give our students the rich learning environments that they are accustomed to and that match the needs of 21st-century engineering.

In everything from the emergence of online learning to the need for new financial models, innovation will define the future of the university. It will also shape the future of engineering as the profession advances the frontiers in energy, sustainability, human health, infrastructure, manufacturing, and security.

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