Prior Product Innovation Lab Showcase Winners: Where are they now?
The Product Innovation Lab at North Carolina State University is a cross-disciplinary practicum course team-taught by NC State faculty members in the Poole College of Management, the College of Design and the College of Engineering, giving students the opportunity to work together to design and develop a product.
Over the years, student products have spanned industries from healthcare to sporting goods to consumer safety, with some groups continuing work together after the practicum ends to bring their product to market.
Former students agree the Product Innovation Lab offers a unique experience working in a cross-disciplinary team through which they developed skills they’re using in their professional lives today.
Two such former students recently shared their thoughts on how they’ve put the Product Innovation Lab experience and their Jenkins MBA to work in their careers.
In 2018, Jelyse Dawson and her team from the Product Innovation Lab worked in conjunction with the MINA Foundation to address a challenge the foundation faced. The MINA Foundation provides menstrual cups to girls in developing countries who otherwise cannot afford menstrual products and thus stay home from school when they have their period. The cup provided a solution, but Dawson said cleaning and storing the cup was a burden for these girls. Her team developed the Minatizer, an eco-friendly and economical cleansing device, as well as a storage solution for the cup.
Dawson chose the Jenkins MBA because she was looking for a program where she could focus on understanding the consumer and creating solutions based off consumer needs. She emphasized two important takeaways from the Product Innovation Lab and Jenkins MBA experience that she’s used moving forward into her career: the importance of a global perspective, and the importance of using business for good.
Upon graduating, she worked in a data analytics role, where the data was used to influence company decisions.
“That data showed that India has a unique voice, China has a unique voice, the United States has a unique voice,” Dawson said. “Even though they’re unique, they should all be embraced.”
It all came full circle to her experience in the Product Innovation Lab, where she said design, engineering, and business each brought their unique voices to the table and had to work together to succeed.
Just prior to the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, Dawson was laid off by Cisco where, in her most recent role, she served as an employee engagement and executive communications manager.
Though she was devastated by the layoff, it gave Dawson the opportunity to re-focus on another passion. In 2015, she’d started her own fitness business when her mother became ill and Dawson returned home to care for her. She’d put that business to the side, however, her departure from Cisco offered her the opportunity to return to it. Today, that’s where using business for good comes into play.
“Every day I wake up and think, how can I use my gift of fitness to help others,” Dawson said.
Through Fusion Fitness By Jelyse, she now offers free fitness classes to the community through Facebook Live, as well as classes for purchase. Her “Workout at Work,” program for example, focuses on helping those working from home during the pandemic stay focused on fitness. She’s adding to her enterprise this summer with a virtual business leadership camp for girls to prepare girls for tomorrow’s workforce.
“I started Fusion Fitness by Jelyse to bring wellness solutions to medical patients, at-risk youth, and active adults,” she said. “What started as a business turned into a social enterprise empowering people to take care of their mental and physical health.”
Andrew Bowker and his Product Innovation Lab teammates addressed a home safety issue by creating Chirp, a more sophisticated smoke detector. At the start of the project, Bowker’s team learned that kitchen stove fires are responsible for about 50 percent of all home fires, but the average smoke detector is “not recommended for kitchen use,” and is installed too far from the stove. Chirp was designed make kitchens safer by enhancing fire prediction and response through smart monitoring, early detection, and alert intervention.
Bowker, who had an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from NC State, had experience the non-profit and start-up environments prior to returning to pursue his MBA. The Technology Commercialization track within the Jenkins MBA appealed to him.
“Having been in small settings, with the nonprofit and then the start-up where I was more involved in decision-making side of things, I loved that aspect – making consumer-based decisions and using that to sell a product,” Bowker said.
Today he works for IBM, where he says the design thinking approach used in the Product Innovation Lab meshes with IBM’s design thinking approach.
“I work with designers in my role now, and that experience helps me see behind the scenes and how concepts are treated in the design process,” he said.
Teamwork experience gained through the Product Innovation Lab and Jenkins MBA courses has been essential in his career as well, Bowker said.
“I learned to work with people who thought differently and made decisions differently, and to think about how I can influence people in a way that gets the job done, but doesn’t hurt anybody’s reputation or relationship,” he said.
What’s more, much of the coursework from his Jenkins MBA applies today as he focuses on market research and competitive analysis.
“I feel like I’m using the full spectrum of the degree,” Bowker said. “It was very practical and hands-on – one class had no tests or exams, I was graded on how I made decisions in bringing a product to market. That’s realistic, that’s what you’re graded on in the professional world.”