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White House cites new MITx course as key to improving U.S. innovation

Professor Eugene Fitzgerald and Andreas Wankerl reconceptualize the innovation process in new MOOC
Credits: of Salford

An upcoming MITx course, called 3.086x Innovation and Commercialization, has been cited by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as a key resource for bringing innovation to market more effectively. Taught by MIT Professor Eugene Fitzgerald and Dr. Andreas Wankerl, operations director for the Innovation Interface, the course was developed from decades of practical research and industry experience, which is also described in their 2010 book, “Inside Real Innovation” (World Scientific).

The course, offered on the edX platform starting September 16, is intended for inventors, entrepreneurs, corporate decision-makers, investors and policy-makers. It presents a new model for understanding the complex market forces that determine the success or failure of innovation: "People often think of innovation as a straight-line process from invention to implementation to product to market," says Professor Fitzgerald in discussing the course. "In the real world, innovation is much more complicated and requires a deep understanding of technologies, implementation options and potential markets all at the same time throughout the process. Effective innovation requires many different attempts to fit these three domains together to bring a product to market successfully."

Borrowing from Fitzgerald’s own 18-year journey through the process of inventing and commercializing an important semiconductor technology, the course examines the stages of refinement that an innovation must pass through before reaching the market. Although his invention, strained silicon, is now the basis of every Pentium chip sold since 2004, it required years of work in a variety of settings — AT&T Bell Labs, MIT, and a startup called Amberwave Systems — before it could be successfully brought to market. “In today’s world, it’s extremely rare that one individual will invent a new technology and follow its full path through the various institutions and incarnations it will follow,” says Wankerl, speaking of Fitzgerald’s invention. “But Gene’s own experiences provide that perspective and insight, demonstrating just how complex and iterative true innovation really is.”

Although the course is rooted in both Wankerl’s and Fitzgerald’s significant industry and research experiences, the origins of the course can be traced to an international collaboration called the Singapore-MIT Alliance, whose goal was to promote the exchange of technical and entrepreneurial skills between universities. To support the program, Fitzgerald and Wankerl designed a graduate-level class that placed the science of engineering within the larger context of innovation and commercialization.

“Often, when you work on the engineering side, the business school thinking just isn’t taught. And the business schools can’t dive deeply into the science side. We wanted to break down those academic boundaries,” Fitzgerald says. “We wanted to create a highly interdisciplinary course that allowed engineers to think about the bigger picture — the commercialization space — while doing their research.”

Recognizing that “innovation” is an often overused word, the course is designed to help students establish a precise understanding of innovation and challenge their basic assumptions about how it really works. Fitzgerald and Wankerl hope their ideas can help both industry and universities work together in a more effective and productive manner, while promoting deeper government investment in innovation. “These are meant to be transformational ideas. There has been a long-standing idea that innovation cannot really be taught, only mentored, because you have to deal with multiple uncertainties at multiple levels,” Wankerl says. “But this course shows that the process can be understood, and that if we want to create an ecosystem that returns to delivering strong economic growth, we need to teach innovation correctly.”

It is precisely the effectiveness of their message, delivered through their course and their book, “Inside Real Innovation,” that led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to name them as key NGO contributors to the Materials Genome Initiative, which is an effort to develop research, policies and infrastructure that can more effectively bring advanced materials to market as cutting-edge products. The Materials Genome Initiative (see PDF) includes a portfolio of federal and external stakeholder commitments, including several efforts at MIT.

Announced by President Obama on June 24, 2011 in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University, the Materials Genome Initiative is designed to increase the speed to market of innovations in the United States. “The invention of silicon circuits and lithium ion batteries made computers and iPods and iPads possible, but it took years to get those technologies from the drawing board to the market place,” said the president in describing the Initiative. “We can do it faster.”

By collectively shifting the way we think about innovation, while transforming the policies, processes and institutions that support it, say Fitzgerald and Wankerl, we can achieve that goal. They are hopeful that MITx will greatly extend the reach of their ideas beyond the walls of the university, so that a much broader audience of decision-makers can begin considering the necessary structural changes.

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