“It’s a Win-Win”

Group of people standing among display cases and against a wall of display screens. Once screen is of a map with some countries filled in with yellow.

Stryker ENT project team, taken in the lobby of the Stryker headquarters in Plymouth, MN. From left to right: Dan Flo, associate R&D manager, Stryker; Tong Zhou, graduate student, Mechanical Engineering, CSE; Nicholas Hennigan, graduate student, Mechanical Engineering, CSE; Megan Weaver, graduate student, Product Design, CDes; Jessica Gilman, MBA student, CSOM; Andrea Bonine, MBA student, CSOM; Nicole Hanson-Oni, graduate student, Product Design, CDes; Somany Dy, senior staff engineering technician, Stryker; Paul Lesch, senior principal engineer, Stryker; Will Durfee, professor, Mechanical Engineering, CSE.

Ibraheem Badejo is very familiar with the University of Minnesota’s biomedical engineering program and aware of its credibility among academic institutions across the country. Badejo, a senior research and development (R&D) director for external front end innovation at ETHICON, a Johnson & Johnson MedTech company, is always on the lookout for new ways of working, like collaborations that can drive innovation. So when he learned about the University’s New Product Design and Business Development (NPDBD) program, he was inspired to learn more. 

Badejo first reached out to the University’s Corporate Engagement Center and was connected with Will Durfee, professor and director of design education in the College of Science and Engineering (CSE), who co-directs the NPDBD program with Dan Forbes, professor in the Carlson School of Management. They identified some mutual opportunities and assembled a team of top students from CSE, the Carlson School, the College of Design, and the Medical School to design a real-world challenge to explore the development of a new device for treating a circulatory system disorder.

NPDBD is one of a number of programs across the University system that connects students with businesses in a learning experience that benefits both. Other opportunities engage statistics students to bring frontline statistical skills to corporate projects; bring business students on board to address specific challenges; involve management and design students in developing products and corresponding business plans; enlist design students to design clothing, interior spaces, or solutions to retail challenges; and involve food, agricultural, and natural resource sciences students in developing new products and sales plans or leadership development programs for employees.

The composition of the University’s NPDBD team in collaboration with ETHICON sounds like the start of one of those jokes: A doctor, an engineer, and an MBA walk into a project. But there was no joking about the value of this work group, which included top students in the U’s medical, engineering, and business schools.

"UMN physicians bring the medical perspective, the business students look at the market access and competitive landscape, and the engineering students guided by ETHICON R&D professionals are able to develop the prototype,” Badejo said. “The output was exceptional in terms of the work the students accomplished.”

Like other NPDBD teams, the students worked together for nine months on a project specified by the host company, with a faculty member serving as coach. 

“We can help to translate some of the things the client says, help students figure out what’s important and what’s not so important,” Durfee said. “We want to both make sure the students learn and that value is returned to the company, so we figure out how to help reach both goals.” 

Badejo, for his part, was delighted with the program results. “The University’s NPDBD program helps foster new concepts; it offers a fresh perspective on market analysis in terms of competitive products and the students are experiencing how to develop a product all the while,” he said. “It’s a win-win for the company and the University of Minnesota.”

Advancing Corporate Goals

Companies participating in the NPDBD and some other experiential learning programs sponsor the program to help offset the cost of administering the collaboration. Through the collaboration, both entities knowledge share, uncover new insights, and develop the students’ early-career enthusiasm—not to mention opening the door for prospective future career opportunities.

When companies first look into the NPDBD opportunity, they often have questions about legal logistics, such as confidentiality and intellectual property rights, Durfee said. The University recognizes the importance of these concerns and has set up systems to provide the needed reassurance. Students sign non-disclosure agreements, and the IP rights are specified—and sometimes negotiated—for each agreement.

David Augustine is director of advanced product development at Northern Tool + Equipment and sponsor of an NPDBD team that spent the 2022–23 academic year working on generator-based fast chargers for electric vehicles. 

“We don’t have that many resources free right now at Northern Tool, so we thought it would be a good time to bring in that creativity plus electrical engineering knowledge,” Augustine said. The students he worked with brought “new ways of solving the problem, fresh ideas” and diverse cultural experiences. With the team as a whole investing upwards of 1,000 hours in the project, he said, “it is a really good value for the money.”

“I am continuously impressed with the experience the students have had,” said Medtronic senior research program manager Jeff Lemmerman, a UMN alumnus who has hosted teams of software engineering students taking an undergraduate capstone project course for several years. “We see it as a way to get some things we’re curious about that we might not find a way to resource or fund with our normal mechanisms.”

Other clients in the two-plus decades the software engineering experiential learning program has been around include Microsoft, SuperValu, Sleep Number, C.H. Robinson, and Target.

“It’s a wide range of things every year. The students are always stretching the boundaries,” said CSE teaching specialist Kevin Wendt, who coordinates the program.

Lemmerman says he appreciates the fresh perspective the students have to share. “They’re bringing a unique experience and skill set—in some cases, an updated skill set—to our team.” he said. He appreciates the chance to give back to his alma mater, too. “We’re interested in the output, but also in the impact that we’re having on the students.” 

Skills and Confidence

And that impact is significant. Students gain hands-on experience directly relevant to their future careers. They learn to work together across disciplines. They build their resumes as well as relationships with people who can serve as job references. They’re able to practice using tools in a real-world environment. In some cases, they even end up with a job offer after they graduate.

“You gain a ton of skills. You have more confidence in your ability. Working with a team definitely gives you the experience of working with others,” said former College of Design student (now alumna) Nicole Hanson-Oni, who led an NPDBD team working on a device for Twin Cities medical device firm Stryker ENT. “It was an extremely rewarding course to understand the whole process of product design and development that happens in the real world.”

“It was fun. We learned how to actually deliver results,” said Vayam Agarwal, a member of Lemmerman’s team. “It’s a win-win situation for all.”

“It was a great experience,” said Luke Sabal, a member of the NPDBD Ethicon crew who’s working on dual degrees in medicine and biomedical engineering. “It really helped me as a future physician think of the general mindset of medical device development teams.”

“I’m very glad I participated,” said Ali Kahlert, a human factors and ergonomics PhD student in the College of Design and a member of the NPDBD team sponsored by Medtronic. “In PhD land, we get very focused on a small little piece. But seeing how what you’re doing can be translated into the wider world—it’s nice to see academia is not the only place this knowledge applies.”