Through Colin Drummond (professor in the MEM program and mentor of many students). I was introduced to Gary Wnek, Faculty Director of the program, about four years ago. I was running a business development group and looking for external inputs to the innovation process. I pulled together a group of non-competing Northeast Ohio companies, including Invacare, where Colin worked, and he suggested I invite Gary. It was a brainstorming session, exchange of ideas over pizza, talking about innovation, commercialization, etc. Gary introduced me to the MEM program, and invited me down to campus and introduced me to Suzette and the staff, and to give him feedback as a corporate guy in Northeast Ohio.
We have half-a-dozen MEM students or so right now in Commercialization Associate (CA) roles. We tend to try and find the ones that have gone early, doing the summer term before their senior year. We keep them for that whole year, full-time in the summer with lots of training, then drop back to part-time once school starts. They integrate very well; we have them doing business analysis support: If we have a bunch of new products, ten different things to spend money commercializing, they help us determine which two we should spend money on, which five we kill. For example, we may have a business plan and now we’re going to make a decision to put big money into it. The MEMs are helping develop information about price points, markets, customers, etc.
My personal CA is Chelsae Poelking, a BME undergrad MEM student, working for the last seven months. We did a long-term business impact study on vehicle electrification. Chelsae did a fantastic job of getting her head wrapped around what the real scoop is on the battery technology hurdles, political and media feedback aside. She went six feet deep on that topic and helped create the boundaries—what’s possible with batteries, and what the battery industry is just spinning to draw investors.
The CAs at our company are integrated fully into the organization, not at all treated like a lowly intern. They are brought into all discussions related to that business, confidential or not. Also, they are each set up with an internal mentor, someone in the business management side that they can get help from, just as a new full-time hire at the organization.
We create a grid of senior- to middle-manager contacts and they do an hour meet and greet with each person on the grid, all the way up to Group VP level. Part of it is networking; the other part is exposing themselves to these people to identify opportunities for them within the company.
These students are very, very good at researching companies, both for CA positions and for full-time placement. Their knowledge of companies is very high. The two things I hear from students about why they come and stay at our company: We have a rock-solid 80-year history of the company; this gets them interested. What keeps them there is the climate in the company: Very upbeat and people-driven. It is not strictly financially driven, we build up our people to be successful; if we take care of the people, the results will come. The students experience that starting on day one with a very welcoming attitude. They have honest, meaningful projects, are being looked after and supported.
I have a personal mission to try to do anything I can to support education in this country. I think our educational system, on average, is failing. We’re getting beaten, especially on the technical side, by other countries. I want to help increase the quality of students coming out of our educational system, and use their skills to serve the needs of the country.
These students, although they may not understand it yet, are privileged. They are going to a private university, paying for it one way or another, and they’ve had a fabulous start to their life with a technical degree and a business background. Do not take that for granted. Use your education, and work to not just make the most money, but to advance an organization or society. Step out of yourselves and consider what good you can bring to the world.