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Episode Notes

Episode Title: What is Innovation? With Prof. James Oliver, Director of Student Innovation Center, ISU.

Episode summary introduction: Prof Oliver joins us on our podcast to give us a Primer on Innovation. We cover, What is Innovation, When to Innovate and The Process of Innovating. He offers guidance to high schoolers on how to prepare and develop the skills needed to become tomorrow’s innovators.

Professor James Oliver, is the University Professor and Director of Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University, Ames Iowa.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • What is Innovation?
  • When to Innovate?
  • Criteria to Pivot
  • Skills Needed to be an Innovator

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introducing Prof. James Oliver, ISU [0:49]
  • What is Innovation? [2:05]
  • Deciding When to Innovate [6:09]
  • A Virtual Reality Story [13:06]
  • Pivot or Walk Away? [16:03]
  • Pivoting from Healthcare to EdTech [19:34]
  • Getting Ready to be an Innovator [22:45]

Our Guest:Professor James Oliver is the Inaugural Director of the Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University. Prof. Oliver was awarded the title of University Professor in 2012. Prof. Oliver has a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from Union College, and a Masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Memorable Quote: “People don't be afraid to be the new person in this, whatever it is volleyball or, or theater or you know, all these activities, just try them.”

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

<Start Snippet> Prof Oliver  0:14  

I say I would recommend taking advantage of all the breadth of your, that you're offered through your high school and, and be engaged in activities that, that, be bold be Don't be afraid to try something new. And and broaden that scope. So that's this your time to, to really dip your toe in lots of different puddles and see what, what, what inspires you.

Venkat  0:49  [Introducing Prof James Oliver, Iowa State University]

That is Prof James Oliver, Director of the Student Innovation Center.

I am your host, Venkat Raman.

In this episode we introduce the concept and practice of Innovation.

Prof Oliver refers to it as “magic”.

Peter Drucker called it a “tool for entrepreneurs to exploit change, as an opportunity for a new business or service.”

In recent times, innovation has captured everyone’s imagination - as a way to create a better world, as well as an engine for a better future for themselves.

The good news is, Drucker said, Innovation can be learned and practised.

Prof Oliver joins us on our podcast today to give us an overview of What is Innovation, When to Innovate and The Process of Innovating.  

He also offers guidance to high schoolers on how to prepare and develop the skills needed to become tomorrow’s innovators.

So, without further ado, here’s Prof James Oliver!


Here is Prof Oliver with a story to illustrate the innovation steps

Let’s listen to Prof Oliver’s personal story about Pivoting


Venkat Raman  2:05  [What is Innovation?]

Jim, you've been at the forefront of innovation and research over the last three decades in academia and industry, you are now charged with amplifying innovation across the University in the form of the student Innovation Center.

So let me start by asking, What is innovation? And what does it mean to you?

Prof Oliver  2:29  

Yeah, sure. Well, innovation is a is finding opportunity where, where you may not be looking at first. So the, it means solving problems that people may not have even known they had, right? It's, you know, Apple was really good at that. Because no, right, we, you know, who's gonna want that thing. And it turns out, everybody wants it.

Prof Oliver  2:58  

But it's, and that sound makes it sound easy. But, you know, it comes from being very perceptive. What people struggle with, in whatever field. So, you know, whether you're teaching, you know, literature, or you're working on an aircraft engine, you know, you you, you learn about the this, the process and the systems. And, and then you sort of take for granted, well, this is this is how we have to do it. And you don't even realize that it's a it's inefficient, or it's, it's awkward or prone to mistakes. And that's, I think, the best innovators are those that are looking at, you know, how do we do it now? And how can we do it better.

Prof Oliver  3:44  

And again, I think innovation, and that's our vision here, with our effort, it's, it's an umbrella that spans pretty much everything we do as a university. And we have a broad mandate here as a land grant university, to, you know, to do a lot. So, you know, whether it's improving the teaching and learning of the students or integrating that research experience into that, and getting better at it. Economic Development, and entrepreneurship is certainly part of that. But innovation is much broader than entrepreneurship. And anybody can be an innovator if they're if they set their mind to it. So there's a great book I'd recommend, starting with number one, but the one that had the most impact for me was range, and it's a What's his name? I can look it up. But it's how,

Venkat Raman  4:38  

Epstein Epstein

Prof Oliver  4:39  

Yeah, yes. Yeah, Epstein, you know, that the idea of having it obviously, we can't be interdisciplinary unless we have disciplines, so we need that depth, but you also need to nurture that breadth. And you know, that all of his examples of, you know, Nobel Prize winners that were, you know, musicians or or a They have, so they have this breadth. And that's, that's really difficult to, to first of all, convince people that you need to, you need to nurture both to be an entrepreneur, or to be an innovator. And that book is just very inspiring to me that these wicked problems need breath. But you can't solve all of those with just being, you know, you need experts as well. And so the ability to sort of shake and move between disciplines and, and skill sets and appreciate what everybody's bringing to the table. And, and, you know, build those teams, that's, that's really key.

Venkat Raman  5:36  

No, no, no question. Yeah, it is. It is a great book. I agree. In fact, last summer, I had the opportunity to read it.

Venkat Raman  5:48  

So maybe we should start with the toughest of them all? I mean, how do you how do you decide that you want to innovate? You know, I don't mean that you get up one morning and say I am going to innovate. But how do you pick, How do you how do you test the fact that something is worth innovating?

Prof Oliver  6:09  [Deciding When to Innovate]

I think it comes down to, and I see a lot of potential entrepreneurs, in my previous role at the leading leader, that research center, that you get a lot of enthusiasm from young people that have this great idea. And it's usually some collection of technologies or in my world. And but they haven't thought about what the you know, you ask a basic question, Well, you know, who's who's going to be your user? Okay, and they might have an answer for that.

Prof Oliver  6:47  

Well, what are they, How are they doing this now? And they usually haven't thought about that. And partly, it's because they just haven't had the worldly experience or been exposed to some interdisciplinary group, right? That is.

Prof Oliver  7:04  

Usually you get a group together nice. Well, that doesn't, why don't you just do this? And then they'll say, oh, because we can't, for these reasons. Ah, okay. There are constraints and their issues. So that that experience to start with the problem. That's why you see, I think a lot of innovation happening, where you do have a deep understanding of the of the market and your customers and the and, you know, the day to day work that gets done? And, you know, again, how are where are the pain points, where work, and if people can zero in on those, and then think about the solutions? That's, that's where I encourage people to start is understand who, who it is that you're trying to help and how they're doing it now?

Prof Oliver  7:56  

And why they're doing it that way. Right? It could be cost could be this, it's just how we've always done it, that's the terrible answer. But and then start there, right, start with the, with the person and the process, and what they're trying to do. And again, that could be in any field doesn't have to be in a technical field, you know, a restaurant or food service company or anything, right? It's, there's always better ways to do things.

Prof Oliver  8:27  

And but it does take that that domain knowledge of, and maybe that's an interview process, or just working in that environment, you say, wow, this is really dumb. You know, My arm hurts from doing this all day or whatever. Right? So that's how I identify it.

Prof Oliver  8:49  

But I encourage people again, every now and then you'll get some magic that happens that or a pivot, right? They, yeah, you solve, you realize, and I think as an entrepreneur, that that idea of build something quick and get people to try it and see what they think, very rapid data adaption to get the responses you get, and then modify that as as fast as you can. also critical to success.

Venkat Raman  9:26  

Once you kind of identify something, to, quote unquote, innovate, be that some of the things you just recommended, which is you know, to figure out where you know, whether it's worthy of a next step. So what is that next step? Let's say that, you know, the person has or whatever the team has decided that yeah, this this new widget or object or whatever it is concept is worth pursuing. How do you how do you kind of build on that? What's the next step?

Prof Oliver  9:57  

Yeah, depends on the application domain, but I see really effective, you know, paper prototyping, brainstorming, mind mapping, there's all you know, the all these strategies that go into conceptualization and, and you know that that first step of let's let's not throw out any anything with the bathwater here. And then a lot of times as you I'm sure you've seen, usually it's a it's a, it's a hybrid combination of the ideas that are getting thrown on the wall. And, and that's that that very first, and sometimes it's just, you know, two or three people that are that all you need.

Prof Oliver  10:41  

Getting getting diversity in that group is really key. Here's, you know, in the middle of the country, we're not all that diverse from from backgrounds. And I think there's just tremendous interest now from all our industry partners that this is not just a, you know, a nice to have cultural accommodation, it's actually competitive. You know, if you've got a team, and we're all the same race and religion and experience background, you're you're not going to that solution space is going to be invisible to that team. So having that diversity of cultures and backgrounds and an experience, especially if you're doing a global product that, you know, yeah, you got to have a global team with some global experience. And I think that that is maybe I guess, a big country like India or China, there's enough people that there's a big enough market that you could, you could do that. But I just think the creative aspect of it, right? If and then the different backgrounds, right, from people from from finance, or material science, or they know that stuff's really expensive. And could you get by with this, and, you know, what are the trade offs and getting, getting more eyes on it. And then

Prof Oliver  12:04  

the other, the other key that I've gained is, when you have a great idea, and you want feedback from it, you don't again, you don't go to your best friend and say, Isn't this great? Yes. She'll say, Yeah, you're amazing. But you've got people that you think are, are, you know, maybe hostile, or you don't think they're very smart, or as smart as you are, you know, their peers, but but put it in front of them and and take that criticism and integrate it and understand it. So you can't just get feedback from the people that are like you or that you personally like you gotta you gotta, you got to, and, and integrate it. And that's hard for a lot of people to do, I think.

Venkat Raman  12:54  

No, that is absolutely true. I mean, that is the part of kind of validating what you're doing. Right, right, right.

Venkat Raman  13:06  [A Virtual Reality Story]

Here's a story from Professor Oliver that highlights bringing together expertise with diverse and cross discipline teams.

Prof Oliver  13:17  

You know, VR, like a lot of technologies, you go through the hype cycle, and boom and bust and early nine, early 90s world wild times, my first big home run research grant was with the Navy, in 92, to do virtual environments for manufacturing systems. And we bought some head mounted displays, and we were doing all kinds of great stuff. But I remember just being crestfallen at the time when I first tried, you know, I was buying into the hype, and the Lawnmower Man was a movie and you know, we're all excited. I put it on, I thought, Oh, man, this is terrible, right? It just didn't live up to the hype at all right? limited field of view and resolution was poor. And that lag was awful. And it just was, you know, whatever just didn't work.

Prof Oliver  14:05  

So one of the things we were able to do again with my mentor wasn't just me it was a group of us. Were able to recruit the inventor of the Cave, which was Karolina Cruz and Yara and she was a postdoc at first. But we wound her again city person from Chicago and international, internationally known and moved to the middle of Iowa. And he said, if you do it, well, we'll help you build a cave and, and we, we did we, you know, elbowed out some space and I always tell the story that the first ones they did in Chicago were done by computer scientists so they were literally like, you know, milk crates with projectors sitting on top and you know, baling wire and duct tape and, and if you if you bump the projector to get half a day to get it back in shape.

Prof Oliver  15:02  

So we had some engineering students that knew how to engineer things. And I turned to turn them loose on designing something. And we had the bend the light twice, because it was a short space and they did a beautiful job. We built our first cave and opened it in 96. And that that, as you know, probably, that's a whole different way of doing it. And rather than a little, little, you know, little screens close to your Sure, screens. And the other benefit is you can see your hands in front of you. So it's really more like a mixed reality system. We can roll in, you know, control bucks of a vehicle and wire up the controls to drive the simulated vehicle, it was just a really wonderful run. Those students by the way, went off and started their own company. It's been celebrating celebrating their 25th year this year. It's called mech dine in Marshalltown, Iowa, world leaders in that thing.

Venkat Raman  16:03  [Pivot or Walk Away?]

And this is sort of probably the hardest question is - any, any kind of tips on when to pivot? Or when to abandon right? Or how to abandon, you know, so those are the hardest things, right? When to cut bait and say, okay, you know, this thing doesn't have any legs? Yeah. How do you do? Yeah.

Prof Oliver  16:24  

Well, personal experiences when it just isn't, you know, it isn't working, you're not making any sales. And that's the other thing from that I learned early on as an entrepreneur is that I was, I tried my first one and 93 with a couple grad students. That was even before I joined that, my buddies. I remember writing business plans and developing product and doing all this stuff. And then I met with some sort of mentors and counselors, and they said, Well, you know, we're about your sales. And I said, Well, yeah, yeah. So that appreciation, and it's, it's age old, right, in most companies about the tension between generating revenue. And I always call the holy architecture, we need to start over do it better this time, because we left We can't extend it any little further because of this change. And that change. And that, I mean, it's, it's normal, and it's it's natural, but getting that mind meld between, you know, the, the, you know, generating revenue, you don't have a company if you don't have revenue, and, and if so, but yet, there's a wall, so when, when is the time to pivot is. And then I've also seen in the inventors and entrepreneurs that just are so, so engaged, so enamored of their concept that they ride, ride it into the mountain, right, it's that.

Prof Oliver  18:00  

There's a certain personal, you know, strength to let go and say, oh, and for pivot, right, so the pivot is, you can try that. And maybe one or two pivots is about all you can last, depending on your, your range.

Prof Oliver  18:17  

First of all, get it in the hands of customers, even if it's free, right to get some feedback, or potential customers as quickly as possible. That's key. And if you're getting if you don't take that guidance, and and move in that direction, you're going to lose, but at some point, I think you have to face the music and decide that this, this market isn't ready, or our technology is not ready or our product match mismatch happened. You you've got to, you know, make that call. And it's a hard call. So

Prof Oliver  18:56  

Again, academics think they're the smartest people in the room. But it's, you know, running a business is a whole different beast. But I think a lot of new new entrepreneurs and in particular faculty members that think they're smarter than everybody have have trouble with that letting go of that control.

Prof Oliver  19:18  

And I think a lot of them don't even have that choice, right. It's just they they come and lock the doors and take it. You're done.

Venkat Raman  19:27  

That's, that's one way. That's one way.

Venkat Raman  19:34  [Pivoting from Healthcare to EdTech]

Let's listen to Professor Oliver's personal story about pivoting.

Prof Oliver  19:43  

After I was firmly back established in the university, I got cajoled into co founding another startup. Uh huh. It was snap. It's called body biz with a Z. And we were we were doing some Some interesting colleague of mine was doing some interesting work in segmentation, which is a fairly esoteric problem in radiology and other fields where you need to distinguish one pixel from another. Sure. Most of the techniques, he was a, his skill base was optimization, he was doing all kinds of fancy math to make that problem easier. But what he what he discovered was, you take those CT scans or MRI, MRI scans, you can leverage the information from one slice to the next. And that's it becomes a 3d problem when you stack all those slices up. And so he was building he built a little visualizer, to, to look at the results of his 3d segmentation.

Prof Oliver  20:48  

So happens a endoscopic surgeon came to visit who was taking his daughter around to look at universities. And he was fascinated that we could look at CT and MRI scans in 3d. And we're still it's just that's just volume rendering. It's not that hard. He said, Well, can can you take a piece of geometry and move it around inside there? We said, Sure. And so he was we have to do this. He's a endoscopic pediatric surgeon. So his, he said surgical planning is really primitive. And so we built this tool to do to help those types of surgeons and got the market about right about when the Affordable Care Act was hitting. And that and of course, the whole industry just said, Let's wait and see.

Prof Oliver  21:40  

So we thought we changed directions a little bit and looked at how education was done. So we were early ed tech pioneer in in physiology, anatomy and physiology, as well as in the medical schools in augmenting cadaver labs. And that's that's been a that now we're no longer we can say we're a start up because we're in our what 14 year. But soldiering we survived the crash of oh eight, and then survive the COVID crash. So it's not not a booming market. But edtech is tough. And again, it's a way to keep my toe in the entrepreneurial waters.

Venkat Raman  22:22  

So before we sign off here, I do want to sort of get your thoughts on, there's a whole bunch of aspiring students out there listening to this. And obviously, innovation is a big, big theme, and how do today's high school students get ready for such a thing? What kind of skills do they need?

Prof Oliver  22:45  [Getting Ready to be an Innovator]

That's a great question. I've got two college age sons, and they're both good students and have worked hard and one's a sort of a between sophomore junior in the humanities, and the other one started as engineering program at a different school. But, you know, I think I think, again, that that nobody's an expert as they're, as they're coming out of high school, right.

So I think that is your time and even the first two years of your, of your higher education. I had an even though it was a community college, but I had tremendous exposure to you know, economics and Western culture and theatre and amazing.

So I say, I would recommend taking advantage of all the breadth of your, that you're offered through your high school and, and be engaged in activities that that be bold, be Don't be afraid to try something new. And, and broaden that scope. So that's this your time to, to really dip your toe in lots of different puddles and see what, what what inspires you.

You know, we always tell young people to follow your passion. And that's kind of a it's kind of, I agree with that to a certain extent. But you don't know what your passion is, when you're when you're 17/18 years old. They look at you with this quizzical look like what do you mean?

Yeah, and so and the way you find that is, is exploring and I think that is the right advice for young people to to try things and they have so much opportunity now with all the all the electronics and tools and connectivity we have you can you can go to Khan Academy and their Code Academy I mean, there's just so much out there that's, that's free and available and you know, videos and my one son is just a history buff and he loves languages and he's, you know, fluent in several languages, but it's all through his own. He just that's what he found and he could spend hours with it. He kind of found his his niche By being exposed, take every advantage to travel.

Be the be the, people don't be afraid to be the new person in this, whatever it is volleyball or, or theater or all these activities, just try them. And it's, it's, you know, certainly fun to do and a lot of trepidation sometimes students today, my kids would be, you know, in, in my day, I'm like, old geezer. But you know, it wasn't unusual to straight knock on your friend's door and say, Can so and so come up, but they don't, they don't do that anymore. Because heaven forbid, the parent might open the door, oh my god. So.

But but you still need that network and that abilities, put yourself out there and be it or, you know, at some point and, and try it and, and that's, I think the best advice we can give the young people that that's your time to be to broaden, you got plenty of time to deepen, but expose yourself to as much as you can. And then and in your bachelor's degree as well. There's so many opportunities at a university like this to you know, we have 800 student orgs on campus, so. And whatever your interest is, you know, you can find a group of people that share that interest and yeah, the internships and opportunities to engage in intramurals, or whatever. That's the time you need to to do that is plenty of time.

If you want to be a super expert, you can go to graduate school. But now's the time to get that breadth.

Venkat Raman  26:43  

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Innovation on the center, and hope to be in touch and I'm sure our audience will absolutely love this. Thank you.

Venkat  27:02

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed our podcast with Prof Oliver on Innovation.

Prof Dasu gave us a great overview of Innovation with examples from his experience and how to prepare to be an innovator.

I hope this podcast inspires you to innovate in whatever field you pursue.

For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Innovation.

Thank you all so much for listening to our podcast today.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

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