Part of the joy of traveling across campuses for me is the networking opportunities. In addition to meeting the professors of the classes with whom I engage, I’m usually lucky enough to meet a handful—sometimes more—of people whose meeting I will remember for a while. North Dakota was no exception.
My first day in town held a President’s breakfast—a 7:30 am event involving business leaders and politicians. Now, this was 7:30 am, on a Tuesday. You can imagine my surprise when I saw chairs filled and a large standing audience. The positive interaction between academics, students, business leaders and politicians was equally overwhelming, though it was also a delight to see.
President Dean L. Bresciani kicked off the event with a speech emphasizing “economic development.” He maintained that economic development is a direct result of innovation, an idea with which I agree, for the most part, as innovation can describe a wide variety of things: products, services, culture, marketing, operations and leadership.
After the breakfast, Joel Heitkamp of radio station KGFO interview Dr. David Wells and me on our take of NDSU’s Innovation Week. Joel—a former State Senator of North Dakota—is a quick-witted, sharp interviewer, and his remote broadcast certainly brought some attention to the event.
After the morning activities I was invited to lunch with Tony Grindberg, Executive Director of the Research and Technology Park, Assistant Director Brenda Wyland, Operations Specialist Jan Sobolik and David Wells, Ph.D. We dined at a bright and lively Italian restaurant, our conversation matching our location point-for-point. Throughout our discussion, we detailed a current Research and Technology Park renovation project.
Now, Tony happens to be a current North Dakota State Senator as well as the Executive Director of the R&T project. You might be thinking conflict of interest! Yet, I see it in another light. It makes sense to have a trusted elected official deeply involved in an economic development project. Not all states are as progressive as North Dakota’s approach to education and business. Maybe that’s why this state actually has money.
One of the main focuses of my travel to Fargo, North Dakota was to be involved with the Innovation Week competition. Actually, I was sitting on a panel judging the competition. It was no coincidence that the first person I met back at the President’s breakfast was Dr. J. Bruce Raefort, Provost. He was quick to smile and offer a handshake. I had later found out that Dr. Raefort agreed to three cash prizes for the competition with, get this, no stipulation as to where the money could be spent. A wise move, Provost! Talk about encouraging innovation. I would venture to guess that disposable cash sparked increased interest and participation in the competition.
My entire Wednesday was devoted to judging the twenty-four teams in competition. Each was given fifteen minutes to make an oral presentation and to participate in a short Q&A session. That was fifty percent of their score. The second part of the presentation was visual, conducted in a great room and scored on posters conveying a visual message about each product.
I had officially had a “wow” moment. Finally there was a competition in which innovation and marketing were judged with equal weight. All too often, marketing is simply overlooked by innovators and entrepreneurs. Yes, I am an entrepreneur, and at risk of being guilty by association, entrepreneurs tend to become so focused on the attributes of their product that they do not clearly define the benefits to the consumer. NDSU and the NDSU Research and Technology Park, kudos for this approach!
The following day was the awards ceremony. The networking before the ceremony was electrical. Student teams were excited, judges were anxious and professors and faculty enthusiastic. Once again, conversation flourished.
I was with students from 8:30 AM that day until 30 minutes before the keynote speech. The plan was to write a few notes about the week’s activities that were unique and impressive about an hour before the awards activity. The time constraint eliminated the opportunity to prepare a formal keynote speech. My exhausted brain had to adlib most of the presentation.
The keynote speech focused on the importance of emerging technology in economic development, and how the USA has always been a leader in emerging technology. I commended the school for what it is doing to promote this important subject; however, there is one thing I had trouble with, which I made known to the audience.
Being the entrepreneur that I am, I simply couldn’t shake my opinion on competition judging. I struggled with it. Nowhere in the judging criterion was a section on the actual innovative ideas transitioning to entrepreneurship. In other words, bringing the idea to market was not to be considered. How does a serial entrepreneur look at an idea without considering market possibilities? I almost couldn’t. Several angel investors and venture capitalists also sat on the judging panel with me, and they asked the same question.
I rounded out my trip with those few thoughts and several accolades to both the winners and to the school. To be certain, Dr. Wells and I look forward to our next discussion on the merits of considering innovation without an entrepreneurial view.
Overall, it was a very well spent week. North Dakota State University is an extremely progressive school with dedicated faculty and focused students. Just the kind of atmosphere to breed innovative thinkers and to allow them to really flourish.