Tapping Into College Resources

Need R&D capacity but can't afford it? Turn to creative college students who can give you their fresh, unaffected perspectives.
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4 min read

This story appears in the January 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When bold furniture wanted to design a new line of contemporary office furniture, it outsourced the job. But instead of outsourcing to a professional studio, it called on design students at the University of Cincinnati's School of Design to come up with some new ideas.

Working with students was a good alternative for Spring Lake, Michigan-based Bold Furniture. "Many designers require retainer fees, and that can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars a month to $10,000 a month. In addition, they'll look for royalties between 1 percent and 5 percent of sales," says co-owner Todd Folkert, 27. "Working with the students, there's really not that significant of an upfront cost. It's pretty much all variable, tied to the success of the product." The $2 million company is in the second phase of the design process and hopes to have a marketable furniture line by summer 2006.

It's not a new idea for corporations and universities to work together on ideas. What's changing is how the country's design and engineering schools are creating integrated product design programs that bring together engineering, business and design students to facilitate the innovation process. Student teams research markets, build prototypes and work out design flaws--effectively creating one-stop R&D capacity for small companies.

At the collegiate level, "there's a lot of interest in interdisciplinary innovation," says Craig M. Vogel, director of the new Center for Design Research and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. He's watched the number of integrated university design programs jump from five to 30 in the past five years alone. "In as little as 16 weeks, students can produce potentially patentable ideas," he says. "That didn't used to happen."

Put to the Test
Companies see potential in integrated product design programs. Ford Motor Co. teamed with students at Carnegie Mellon University, which now offers a master's degree in product development, to design interior features for the Ford Escape SUV. The University of Cincinnati's School of Design works regularly with up to 10 companies.

Companies large and small benefit from a fresh look at their product lines. "They've got all this baggage about their business and their competitors.Students don't have that baggage," says Steve Belletire, associate professor of industrial design at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Agreements between companies and universities can involve purchasing studio rights that run between $30,000 and $100,000--a potentially cost-prohibitive move--but there's room for negotiation. Instead of cash upfront, Bold Furniture's team of 13 full-time employees provides engineering expertise, marketing capabilities and internship opportunities for the University of Cincinnati's design students; the university will receive future cash royalties and furniture.

The ideas students brainstorm, however, might not always be instantly marketable. BodyMedia, a 35-employee Pittsburgh company that makes continuous body-monitoring devices, has worked with student design programs, including Carnegie Mellon's program. "They may not necessarily give you the next idea," says Chris Kasabach, 36, co-founder and vice president of product design for BodyMedia. "But they can help corroborate ideas you may have already been gravitating [toward], or help prove certain ideas aren't useful." Ideas in early stages without tight deadlines tend to be the best fit for both sides. The website of the Industrial Designers Society of Americalists university design programs by region.

Professional designers might not like this trend, as their profession struggles in a global, outsourced marketplace. "Parts of the design process can be commoditized," Belletire says. "The professional community might look at this and say, 'They're kids; they're not professionals yet. They're taking business off our table.'"

But turning the tables could pay off big for Bold Furniture's bottom line. The goal "is not just to have a story to tell, but for it to actually turn into increased business and increased profitability," Folkert says. "At this time next year, I'll certainly be able to comment on that."


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