When Limits Fuel Innovation

By Shari Garmise

Shari Garmise, Ph.D., is vice president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities where she manages the USU/APLU Office of Urban Initiatives and the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities. You can find her at @sharigarmise or urbanuniversity.wordpress.com.

How a small-scale pitch competition with fired up 11 urban universities

His Shark Tank-style pitch for investment was almost done. Neville Pinto, then dean of the J.B. Speed College of Engineering at the University of Louisville, had carved his presentation down to the five-minute limit, describing a new institute. He’d described how its programs would help grow budding entrepreneurs among the students, team them with business innovators, and launch new products and job creation in Louisville. The judges’ panel –not investor sharks but leaders in higher education, industry and philanthropy—was ready for the ask.

“And here,” he said, “is how we’re going to use the money.” That’s when the buzzer went off, bringing an abrupt end to his formal presentation.

Deans, provosts, and presidents don’t normally have to confine their remarks within the limits of a buzzer. But they did when 11 urban universities publicly competed for seed money for their institution’s innovative approaches to building relationships between higher education, employers, and the labor market in their cities. What’s more, they were eager to lead these five-minute pitches themselves.

That’s despite constraints that ranged from a limit of just one slide or prop, to the unfamiliar five-minute investor pitch in the style of the reality show, Shark Tank. And even though these 11 proposals, taken together, would cost millions to fund fully, we were offering a total pool of $30,000, provided by Lumina Foundation.

Judges from Lumina, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Akron, and Lockheed Martin could divide that pot of money any way they chose, so the pitchers had no idea how much they might receive, nor how much they should request. The entire process of asking also came with an audience, in a session at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ (APLU) annual meeting organized by the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities (USU) in Orlando in November.

If the stakes seemed low, the risks seemed high on all sides when we started out. Big prizes are trending. They have seen success unearthing innovation, incenting collaboration, and shining a spotlight on cutting edge work. Would it work with a small pot of money, especially as we were asking university leaders to pitch in in an unfamiliar format, a tight timeframe in a crowded field to an audience of their peers?

Why put these leaders in a public crucible for a seemingly low-stakes, high-risk result? The reason is simple: We wanted to create a space to encourage innovation around a persistent issue for urban universities—building a workforce to meet local employers’ needs and create jobs for graduates—and to have some fun with it. In the process, we learned that putting tight limits on the process not only helped fuel creative pitches and innovative proposals, but it created unexpected spaces of collaboration both on campus and between campuses.

From a little bit, we created great value, and the experience is easily replicable on-campus to incent faculty or students or in other national venues such as a conference or workshop to advance our knowledge of what works in higher education or elsewhere.

Here are some of those takeaways:

  • Deep exposure to a variety of ideas: The variation of ideas pitched was exciting and eye-opening, an indicator of how difficult change can be in the higher education environment. And that’s as it should be. If you’re serving local employers, it’s going to look different in Louisville and Houston and Fresno and Brooklyn. Equally, the pitch process pulled back the curtains to reveal a wealth of high risk, cutting edge approaches that are not usually associated with higher education.
  • Lessons from the competition: The requirement to pitch in public and before a live panel, rather than just in writing a proposal—as is the norm—put an extra layer of pressure on the proposers—and allowed them to learn directly from their competitors. The evaluations said it all—participants felt they left the event with new ideas they could apply to their campus.
  • Learning to Be Brief: When was the last time you heard a five-minute talk in academe? The time limit forced presenters to consider with care what went into their presentation, and what to leave for the panel to ask in its five minutes of question time. As a bonus, each university now has a focused pitch for its initiative that can be used in reaching out to other donors, alumni, and supporters.
  • Professional development: How did we get polished five minute pitches? We hired a communications consultant who provided a pitch 101 session to bring the pitchers up to speed on this new format and how to use it effectively, and offered an hour of 1:1 private coaching for those making the pitch. Providing this service created an opportunity for professional development and that opportunity alone had several universities apply to pitch. This was a skill they wanted to attain. In fact, some of the university leaders were so pleased with it, they may bring this type of training to their campus to share the skills.
  • The power of external forces to help internal plans come together. For a number of universities making pitches, the external validation gave their project a national stamp of approval—not just from APLU and USU, but the live audience of peers and our judges, who hailed from all the sectors involved in the universities’ projects.
  • The spotlight. Recognition—national and on-campus—provided the most valuable takeaway from the event. In addition to press releases and photo ops, all the pitchers gained from having a national spotlight on their innovation—it was something they could take back to show the campus, local employers and other local stakeholders to leverage additional support.

And the best part of the experience? Everyone who participated benefitted. Yes, only three universities’ pitches won $10,000 each. But as the mathematics faculty at Portland State University wrote to Provost Sona Andrews, who pitched their idea for a professional master’s degree in industrial mathematics, “All that energy you brought to this effort has energized us and the proposal. None of this effort was wasted.” Like most of our participating campuses, they’ll keep looking for support, now armed with a better pitch, a well-polished idea, and the perspective of peers and leaders nationwide.

Would this approach or elements of it work for bigger grants or more traditional government funding? The answer must be yes. Core design elements, which can be adapted to other venues, fueled its innovative nature and its value to participants. What potential grantee would not benefit from sitting side by side the competition and seeing how others have approached a similar challenge?   Every proposal would be enriched from the process—not just the winners.

The wider stakeholder base used to evaluate the projects—priceless when looking to invest in ideas that have wide impact—and yes, are accountable to the public. Peers matter for evaluation but integrating a wider set of voices in the process drives innovation—diversity of judges increases the diversity of projects.

Finally, incent proposals from multidisciplinary, multi-sector teams. Each pitch had a team behind it that crossed campus siloes and extended deep into the community. In no case, did the benefits accrue to a single department, researcher or isolated project.

And what about Dean Pinto, whose ask was cut off by the buzzer? He’d managed by then to pique the curiosity of the judges, whose first question was, “Well, tell us how you’d use the money.” The answer got his pitch for the University of Louisville one of the $10,000 investments that day.

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