Cultivating Creativity

The Richmond region was not known in the 20th century as a center of either productivity or innovation. Our region was more prosperous than the national average, but it never stood out as a paragon of anything. Among Southern cities, it was eclipsed by Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Nasvhille and a half dozen cities in Texas and Florida. But the 21st century may tell a different story.

This evidence is anecdotal. But three new initiatives have emerged on the scene here in Richmond — the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Biosciences Commercialization Center and the Virginia Business Excellence Consortium — that are qualitatively different than anything our region has seen before. At long last, the Richmond region is birthing institutions that focus on productivity and innovation, the only enduring sources of competitive advantage in the global economy.

I’ll be profiling the second of those groups within a few days, and I hope to dig into the third eventually. Here’s a short version of the first, the da Vinci Center, as capsulized in “Cracking the da Vinci Code” which I wrote recently for R’Biz:

A hospital operating table in the United States costs around $40,000. An operating table in Bangladesh can run between $5,000 and $30,000, depending on whether the hospital can spring the cash for a Western model or has to settle for a cheaper Chinese version. Even at the discount price, hospitals in the impoverished South Asian country — or in many other developing countries, for that matter — can afford only one.

Hoping to bring operating tables to the masses, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University graduate students wants to design, build and ship a table for $500 — one tenth the cost of what it takes the Chinese to deliver one. The only way they can possibly succeed is to approach the problem from a radically different perspective.

That’s the kind of challenge that VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation in Product Design and Development thrives upon. A joint initiative of the schools of business, engineering and design sponsored by seven major Richmond-area corporations, the program teams students from different disciplines as a way to stimulate creative, inter-disciplinary thinking.

In a formal presentation [recently], Seule Kabir, Hitesh Patel and Jennifer Farris chronicled their effort over the past semester to crack the code: adapting off-the-shelf components already mass produced at very low prices, and shipping the tables in a “flat pack” mode that requires some assembly on site but saves on distribution costs.

Mike Troy, a consultant for Stryker Communications, Dallas-based designer of operating tables, says the team came up with some very promising ideas. He particularly liked the flat-pack recommendation, although he suggests that outsourcing manufacturing to China may have pitfalls the students haven’t considered.

By general agreement, the design solution seemed promising enough to move to Phase Two: detailed mechanical and engineering drawings, material development and more detailed market research. Kabir, a native of Bangladesh, is motivated to see the project through to commercialization, if it can make it that far. Whether the students succeed in designing a marketable product or not, they have engaged in an incredible learning exercise.

As one VCU professor noted after the presentation, “This is not about the table. It’s about learning how to solve problems.”

To read a more complete treatment of the da Vinci Center (my column this week in Bacon’s Rebellion), read “Cultivating Creativity.” As I explain there, what makes the Center different from any other program in the country is that it combines the disciplines not only of engineering and business but of design. The Center has seven corporate sponsors willing to pony up $30,000 to advance the art of product development at VCU and, hopefully, recruit the talented young people emerging from the program.

Product development creates more wealth than almost any other economic activity. If Richmond businesses can learn to excel in this arena, they could create unprecedented opportunities for the region.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    VCU has tied itself into Philip Morris, which as a research hospital/university, is somewhat controversial.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    VCU has great strength in product design. It’s been something of a shame that the school gets less publicity than (I think) it deserves. Hopefully, articles like the one in R’Biz will help remedy that.

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