University-assisted innovators bring a unique perspective to the table.
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Companies that want fresh ideas for innovative products are tapping college students to design running shoes, furniture, vehicles and even heating pads.
A Boston-based running shoe company has taken provisional patents on several designs by students at Carnegie Mellon University. In Michigan, a small furniture company is developing a product line based on designs by University of Cincinnati students.
Businesses are increasingly patenting innovative products and procedures created by university students in areas such as design, architecture, engineering and marketing. Companies' appetites for creative thinking has fueled this new twist on the decades-old practice of university-business collaboration.
"With so many companies outsourcing and competition increasing in the new global economy, innovation is what gives businesses the edge they need to compete," said Craig Vogel, director of the Center for Design Research and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. "More of them seem to be realizing what university students can offer."
Cost to companies
Collaborating with students can initially cost less than working with professional designers, but it's not clear whether licensing arrangements or royalty payments would erase those savings.
"This new type of relationship between businesses and student classes is still uncharted territory," said Anne Chasser, UC's associate vice president of intellectual property. Chasser said universities have earned millions of dollars in the past from patents and trademarks developed by faculty.
New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. of Boston gives rave reviews to the Carnegie Mellon students whose ideas included a shoe insole with technology that can track and record exercise.
"The students' lack of exposure to the industry allowed them to generate fresh, new ideas," said Josh Kaplan, a designer at New Balance.
New Balance offered guidance on what type of consumers it targets and how to make the designs practical to their business. The students turned in designs and working prototypes.
Bold Furniture of Spring Lake, Mich., is using University of Cincinnati architecture students' ideas for a line of design studio furniture. The company, which has about 13 year-round employees, plans to market the new line to professional and university design programs nationwide.
"The intriguing element was that these students represent the users of this product line and could tell us what was needed," said Bold Furniture co-owner Todd Folkert.
Students built plywood and cardboard models of elevated design tables, laptop tables, shelving and organizers that can fit together in various configurations.
"It gave us a great experience in the practical needs of companies, and it will look wonderful to have a resume that shows your name is on a patent," said sophomore Kelly Anderson, 20.
Benefits to schools
Financial arrangements of these collaborations vary widely. Under some licensing agreements, schools or students receive a lump sum for the design work done. In other cases, schools are negotiating to have companies pay royalties based on the number of products sold. Some schools have waived payment.
UC is negotiating to receive royalties from the furniture line. Chasser said UC students are not paid but do get their names on patents.
At Carnegie Mellon, some students receive no payment and others receive a lump sum of as much as $1,000, said Jonathan Cagan, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. The payments depend on the type of project and the licensing arrangement.
Katherine Bennett, vice president of education for Industrial Designers Society of America, said students' ideas should be explored with care.
"We just need to be sure that students are not exploited and that it doesn't take jobs from professional designers," she said.
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