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Collaborative creations

MU program pairs engineering and business students to take inventions from drawing board to marketplace
Wednesday, January 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:09 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mary Beth Marrs pulls packaging, a warranty and detailed instructions out of a smallish cardboard box. Next comes a black box with a cord — a machine older people can use to click on lights and other electric devices by remote control.

The socket bears a tiny MU logo.

The box sits in the basement of Cornell Hall among models of items designed to make older people’s lives easier, including a tennis ball with a tube used to hold small items like toothbrushes, a four-wheeled walker and a small wheeled greenhouse that sits at wheelchair level.

Marrs, dean of undergraduate programs in the MU College of Business, is showing off the inventions of some of MU’s engineering and business students — the result of three semesters in the EMILE program.

Entrepreneurial Manufacturing Innovation Laboratory Experience, a program that teams business students with engineering students, began in winter semester 2001. The students’ assignment was to create a business plan and manufacture a product that would benefit older people.

Marrs, along with other business and engineering professors, guides students through the first part of EMILE, when students choose a product and create a business plan.

“We play devil’s advocate a lot,” she said. “We ask a lot of what-if questions.”

In December, the first two students graduated from all three three-hour courses in the program — Enterprise Conception, Enterprise Design and Enterprise Operation.

“I was ready for a class that wasn’t the regular kind,” said Amber Schewe, a master’s student who completed the first two courses of the program. “There were no tests, no lectures. By the end of the class, we had a business plan in place. We had a great idea and we were working toward it.”

Jose Zayas-Castro, a professor visiting from Pennsylvania State University, conceived the program in 1999. Thomas Crowe, an MU associate engineering professor, helped begin EMILE, which earned a three-year, $107,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The program now receives materials and help from corporations such as 3M and Anheuser-Busch.

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PORTABLE GREENHOUSE

Modified table includes casters, hooks for garden tools and built-in flower box. (JESSIE LEWIS/Missourian)

Mixing business students such as Schewe with engineering students can be intimidating for both, Crowe said.

“The business students may think, ‘These are engineering eggheads who are going to get all the good grades,’ and the engineering students say, ‘Here are people who can write and do presentations,’ ” Crowe said. “As soon as they realize they’re in a team, a lot of those concerns go away.”

Each course is team-taught by a business professor and an engineering professor. Crowe said the program enables engineering students to learn business skills and business students to learn about engineering.

“There are different abilities in the groups,” he said. “You put them together, and they gel.”

One challenge is creating an innovative product, Marrs said.

“Frustration is part of the learning process,” Marrs said. “It’s really giving them a new appreciation for how difficult it is to launch a new product.”

Schewe’s group created the Sensor Rug Safety Switch, a pad connected to a light that lit up when the mat was stepped on. A timer switched the light off.

One of the most difficult things for Schewe was determining the cost of the mat.

[photo]

STEP-ACTIVATED LIGHT SWITCH

Pressure-sensitive mat sits next to a bed; when stepped on, lights turn on for a programmed amount of time. (JESSIE LEWIS/Missourian)

“During the second class, pricing it was a challenge because we didn’t know where to start,” Schewe said. “We estimated in the first class, but then we realized we were way off. We had to go back in and figure out how much to sell it for and how to pay for other expenses. It was a real-world scenario.”

Schewe’s group ended up with two models of the rug: one wireless and one with a cord. The wireless mat would cost $59.55 to manufacture, and the group planned to charge $89.33. The mat with a cord cost $39.55 to make, and the retail price was $59.33.

Other products created include a smoke alarm that sounds at varying frequencies, a pushcart that dispenses pills, a chair seat that makes it easier to stand up and a portable green house.

The big question for EMILE now is where these products will go, Marrs said. She said she does not know whether any of the products will hit the market, though the classes worked with home-health specialist AmeriCare, which was interested in using the portable greenhouse.

“They all but begged us to put it into production,” Marrs said.

Patenting complex products takes time and money, said Peter Davis, a professor emeritus of law who has taught patent law classes. With fees for searches for existing patents and patent lawyers’ fees, a typical patent for a simple invention costs between $7,000 and $10,000, Davis said.

“It’s not something an individual can do for him or herself,” Davis said. “It’s a very arcane type of legal practice, and it requires expertise. A person doing it himself or herself would surely screw it up.”

MU associate management professor Doug Moesel, who helps teach Enterprise Design, said the teaching faculty are interested in the possibility of patents. They have worked with the MU Office of Technology and Special Projects to consider the future. However, instructors recognize the expense and effort required. Complications arise because students work with MU materials, in MU labs and with other students, Moesel said.

“It gets kind of tricky,” he said. “Some universities require equity interest in the venture, others would charge fees for use of lab space, advice and consulting.”

If students were genuinely interested in marketing their ideas, Moesel said the EMILE team would try to help them pursue it. But for now, the instructors are just excited about the course.

Crowe said the program is solidifying and enrollment in the classes has grown from eight students to 40. Students can enroll in any course in the sequence at this point, though that might change in the future.

“I think it’s a really good class,” Schewe said. “The professors put time and effort into it to make it worthwhile for students. Out of all the undergraduate classes I’ve taken at Mizzou, I learned the most in that class.”


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