It was a marathon of ideas. For five hours on Friday, MBA students at Michigan State University pushed the limits of open innovation to come up with ideas for new inventions and advances for Whirlpool Corporation. They bounced ideas off one another, then off a panel of judges. Ideas were pitched. Ideas were eliminated. And eventually, teams were eliminated until Whirlpool executives whittled down 16 teams to just four. This was the final exam for the MBA marketing management students and a collaboration between higher education and the corporate world that has tremendous benefits for both.
“Research organizations have reported that CEOs set innovation as a top priority for their businesses,” said Glenn Omura, the course’s instructor and acting associate dean for MBA and professional master’s programs at Michigan State University. “In searching for ways to accelerate the innovation process, companies are no longer relying only on their internal capabilities to invent and develop new products and services. Companies now are looking outside the company for innovations to boost the rate of their total innovation output. We were fortunate to have Whirlpool ask us to be that outside source for ideas.”
The winners of the final won a KitchenAid blender and received a 4.0 in the class, but all of the participants benefited in some way. All students got to participate in the open innovation process, which has become an important tool that companies like Whirlpool use to harvest ideas.
“We want our MBAs to face real-world challenges while in our program,” Omura said. “The open innovation final exam is the culmination of a semester-long focus on creativity and innovation, which is the dominant theme of our MBA program. In their final exam pitch, students had to convince the executives of the consistency between their innovations and what Whirlpool stands for, as well as the importance of the consumer needs that would be satisfied, the potential of the market, and financial viability.”
For Whirlpool, they got the chance to leverage students who are immersed in business innovation and are highly motivated. “Whirlpool Corporation recognizes that to succeed in open innovation we need to truly be open,” said Noel Dolan, senior manager of open innovation at Whirlpool Corporation. “Partnering with the MSU MBA program is a win-win on multiple levels. The students are challenged, gain practical experience, and obtain exposure to real-world business scenarios. Whirlpool Corporation benefits from working with a set of talented individuals who bring ideas from an outsider’s perspective,” she said.
The four ideas the judges selected as finalists addressed an array of products: a change in how oven racks are used, a better way to dispense medication, an advance in tooth brushing technology, and a new way to get custom drinks from a refrigerator.
“I have participated in more than 25 of this type of innovation session, and this ranks at the very top in terms of the quality of ideas brought forth,” said Tim Kee, Whirlpool’s vice president of emerging markets.
Dolan said that Whirlpool would certainly continue to explore some of the students’ concepts for market viability, but more importantly, Dolan stressed that this type of partnership was enriching and important for Whirlpool.
“We fully realize innovation doesn’t only come from within our four walls and hope this project is the start of a more long-term partnership with MSU,” Dolan said.