When Limits Fuel Innovation
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.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.