With more than 10 years of experience in company-university R&D at Iowa State and the University of Kansas, Carey Novak was an easy choice when it came time to select the new director of technology commercialization at Bradley University’s Turner Center of Entrepreneurship last January. One year later, Novak is leveraging his assets to foster business development in central Illinois, working with groups like the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center, Small Business Development Center and Central Illinois Angels. Novak was born and raised in the Belleville, Illinois area and is a graduate of Southern Illinois University, with a B.S. in economics and an M.S. in policy analysis.
How did your career path and experience lead you to Bradley?
At Iowa State University, I worked with 100-plus companies on R&D and technology commercialization projects; each one involved a company collaborating with a university researcher. The companies ranged from John Deere and Rockwell Collins to university-based startups. I worked on a wide range of technologies, from complex software development to advanced, “smart” materials to organic food products.
At the University of Kansas, I worked more at the program level. That is, I helped develop the university’s first business incubation system, a public-private R&D center, and a few large proof-of-concept R&D programs. I also helped tech companies locate facilities in the community of Lawrence, Kansas. This was part of an overall plan to create an “innovation-to-economic development” framework. The idea is to use the university R&D culture to spin off companies and attract technology companies to locate near the university. This generated a good level of economic development in the Lawrence community in terms of job creation, business investment and the creation of intellectual property.
Describe your role at the Turner Center.
I primarily work with tech-based companies in developing new tech-based products and services. Some of these companies are located as tenants in the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center. Many are early-stage companies, but some are emerging and mature companies wanting to develop new products, processes and business models. I help these companies:
- Perform customer research. I’ve worked with several clients in doing face-to-face interviews to identify unmet needs and wants that can become targets for new product ideas. These customer needs and wants are the “fountainhead” for innovation.
- Conduct market research. This is mostly done by performing Internet-based research on market segments, competitors and their product offerings, customer and market trends, and current business models.
- Develop early-stage product applications (e.g., proof-of-concept and prototypes). The goal is to create new product features that meet customer needs and wants.
- Implement an intellectual property strategy. This can include patent searches, filing patent applications and developing a technology licensing strategy.
- Pursue early-stage funding. This is always an issue with new, tech-based business ventures. I help companies evaluate pursuing federal small business innovation research grants and other sources of private and public funding.
- Develop business models. There is much potential for creating new business models (i.e., how to make it, sell it, manage it and finance it). Innovative business models can deliver more value than a new product offering.
I also try to bring in local resources. This means accessing BU labs, faculty and students, as well as collaborating with local companies. Peoria has an excellent base of technical talent residing in many small to large, innovative companies; especially in manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, IT and agribusiness.
What is Bradley’s relationship with the Innovation Center?
I came here in January 2012, and one of my goals was to create a technology commercialization strategy and integrate it with the resources of the Innovation Center. As you may know, it is a 34,000-square-foot business incubator managed by BU, with wet and dry labs, offices and excellent meeting facilities. Currently, there are 13 tenants, not including three businesses which have graduated.
Since I’m located in the Innovation Center, I work very closely with Shirley Meils, office manager of the Center. I focus on helping tenants with technology commercialization projects, and this includes collaboration between tenants. The Center is also a community nexus for other tech companies located in Peoria. It’s a great place for companies to demonstrate prototypes, present business plans and interview customers. Business groups use it frequently for meetings and sponsoring guest speakers. BU faculty, staff and students use the center to meet with companies on projects.
Tell us about your work assisting clients of the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC), Small Business Development Center and Central Illinois Angels.
My client base is closely aligned with IMEC, and in fact, the Turner Center receives funding from IMEC to support our technology program. Their staff has been incredibly helpful for some of my clients evaluating manufacturing strategies for new products and improving the new product development process. I also work with our local Small Business Development Center, since it can help these tech-based companies develop formal business plans. Central Illinois Angels, the local angel investor group, is another organization I work with. It has a deep and diverse set of business experiences and provides feedback to the early-stage tech companies I work with.
Which local companies are you currently working with?
It’s very difficult for me to give names. I can say that I’m working with several of the tenants in the Innovation Center on new product development, customer and market research, fundraising, and business model development. Two of the current tenants are exploring expansion plans, and I’m working with them on their technology development.
Outside of the incubator, I’m working with local entrepreneurs on commercializing new products in medical devices, exercising equipment, wireless communications, building technology, eye makeup, healthcare IT and smart grid.
Tell us about Bradley’s initiative for convergence of the education and research programs of the engineering and business schools.
This is a new initiative being led by the dean of BU’s engineering school, Dr. Lex Akers, and the dean of the business school, Dr. Darrell Radson, and they are the best sources for information on the overall initiative. The one aspect I’m involved with is the convergence projects. This new effort started during this past fall semester and involves three project teams. Each team consists of engineering and business students, and they work as a “consulting team” with a local company. The students will complete the projects during the academic year and receive academic credit. The goal is to deliver a new product design concept that also incorporates business analyses.
These projects are very similar to the technology commercialization projects I work on. I can tell you that these are very challenging projects. Each company has high expectations, and the students are gaining tremendous real-world experience. So far the students have really enjoyed working with each other and bridging the gap between business and engineering. And the clients have indicated they are really pleased with the progress.
How do you think your work at Bradley fits into current plans for regional economic development in Greater Peoria?
I’ve been fortunate in working with two different universities that were also huge players in local economic development. The idea is simple, but a challenge to implement: use the technical and creative expertise of a university to foster innovative products, services and business models that can be commercialized locally. This leads to business startups and expansions, investment and job creation.
I think BU can have a major role in implementing this model by leveraging the existing technology base in Peoria. This area has a large concentration of technical talent in manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, IT and agribusiness—and there is cross pollination among these areas. I think, collectively, we can develop an “innovation-to-economic development” framework that builds upon these technical assets and targets the three-legged stool of economic development: foster startups, help existing companies grow and recruit companies. This represents an evolution of traditional economic development strategies, and more and more communities are pursuing this approach.
What are the key ingredients in fostering company-university R&D collaborations?
- Mutual interest in the technical area and a curiosity to pursue ideas.
- Individual personalities of both parties need to mesh.
- Common understanding of the timeframe and deliverable is a must.
- Project management is essential—I use a “stage-gate” model to manage these kinds of projects.
- And of course… time and money. All projects need it.
How can we better leverage the region’s private and public R&D and technology assets?
We need a structure or a forum for bringing together the various R&D and technology assets and find ways to support collaborative projects. Many other communities and states are doing this, and this model is scalable. We can start off in a very finite way and grow it. As stated earlier, Peoria has a large concentration of technical talent in manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, IT and agribusiness. In some ways, this is comparable to what you would find in a community that has a large research university.
What are some key things to keep in mind in order to jump from an idea to a commercially viable business?
First, talk to customers. Observe customers. They currently use products and services to help them perform “jobs” at home, at work, in the car, etc. Identify problems, needs and wants associated with these “jobs.” Use these problems, needs and wants as targets for developing solutions, noting that technology is always advancing, so there are probably new ways to develop innovative solutions. Second, execution of a good idea is probably more important than the idea itself. This means you will need business management skills. Most people don’t have all the necessary skills, so it’s important to reach out and acquire some kind of management talent to help make the product, sell the product, finance the business and manage the overall business. iBi