Andrew Jordan rarely worked so hard in his life. Reeling from one emergency to the next, a new deadline staring at him each week. Emailing after midnight, teammates waking him at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, professors reviewing an idea of his and saying, “This isn’t going to work.”
It was an intense first year for the 33-year-old master’s candidate in industrial design. Along with about 30 other students at Philadelphia University, he racked his brain and unleashed his energies on a project that went far beyond the ordinary school assignment.
The students were answering a call from Verizon to find innovative, practical, business-minded solutions to some huge health-care challenges.
For the first time, Verizon teamed up with a university to create a campus version of an innovation center, tapping student talent across several disciplines.
“And by bringing together such a diverse and creative team, we’ve created the perfect incubator for coming up with new solutions to real-world problems,” said Fran Shammo, Verizon’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.
Students in business, industrial design, engineering and occupational therapy formed teams to work with Verizon strategic planners and engineers. The assignment: Show how mobile technology can improve the well-being of three quite different populations — millennials (roughly, people in their 20s); poor people who lack usual access to the health-care system (termed the underserved); and the elderly.
It was an exploration into long-term thinking that many companies, relentlessly focused on the coming quarter, often forego.
“Verizon came to us with big ideas,” said Philadelphia University President Stephen Spinelli. “They didn’t ask the students to solve small problems.”
“It was kind of a live-ammo exercise,” said Tod Corlett, an associate professor who directs the industrial design master’s program. “There are a lot of graduate programs out there where people think about these issues, but our students were talking to people at Verizon who spend every day wrestling with these problems.”
The real-life rigor made it especially gratifying whenever a student proposal was well received. “It was amazing to watch students’ faces when they got [a senior Verizon strategist] to be enthusiastic about one of their ideas,” Corlett said. “They knew it had to be something genuinely new if if was going to pass the Verizon test.”
“Everyone likes to have Mom put their drawing up on the refrigerator,” he continued, “but it’s a really different thing to have technology people at this level say you’re special.”
Chris Lloyd, Verizon’s director of public policy and corporate responsibility, said the company sought the partnership because it wants to be a leader in the search for innovative solutions to societal challenges in health, as it also does in education and energy efficiency.
“These students are future business and civic leaders,” Lloyd said, “and it behooves us to familiarize them with our technology so they can understand how it can provide a platform to empower their innovative ideas.
“In the process, we can tap into fresh ideas around how our technology can deliver solutions that generate business and social value” — an approach that Verizon likes to call “Shared Success.”
Philadelphia University, formerly known as the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, was founded 130 years ago at the height of the Industrial Revolution when manufacturing was king. Practical education was the core of its mission. And that remains true in today’s digital age.
“The thing about our curriculum is, people get it immediately,” President Spinelli said. “We like to say, ‘If it looks more like the real world, keep it. If it looks less like the real world, stop it.’”
This project, known as the Verizon Nexus Learning Challenge, presented a particular set of difficulties. It’s one thing for an engineer to imagine, say, an app that can take your blood pressure and store your medical records in the cloud. Or for a business major to make cost/benefit analyses for that device. But it took something extra to understand the different audiences that Verizon wanted to reach.
Underserved communities, such as the poor and the homeless? “Well, one reason they’re underserved is they’re hard to reach,” Corlett said. “Old people? They’re not a demographic that most businesses go after. Millennials? Everyone is after them. To reach them, you have to understand their psychology.”
And so the students talked and researched, argued and wrote. “You’d be on a call with 12 diferent people, and we all had our own deliverables for each class, and your work had to meld with the scope of the whole project,” said David Raufer, who’s working toward an MBA.
“The students were spending 20, 30, 40 hours a week on this, in addition to their other class work or jobs they were going to,” Spinelli said. “We’d say, ‘Whoa, maybe you should take some time off!’”
The effort paid off with impressive results.
For the underserved, often trekking to the emergency room rather than a doctor’s office, a student team envisioned a centralized medical ID record system, stored in the cloud. With secure, cloud-based record keeping and tracking, such patients with chronic diseases could be managed more trustily with in-home devices, providing better care for less money.
For the elderly, another team envisioned an in-home health-care “hub,” called TLC (Total Life Connect), that would help people age in their own homes. Sensors around the house would constantly monitor an elderly person’s condition.
For instance, a smart alarm clock would tell an elderly woman who lives alone that it was time to wake up and go to her doctor appointment. When she got out of bed and stepped on her bedside rug, the sensors in a “smart mat” would wirelessly send message to her daughter that Mom was up and had started her day. And if the daughter didn’t get a message, she’d know Mom needed help.
To help 20-somethings, who frequently lack a primary-care physician, a third team proposed a mobile app that would work with a bracelet to monitor a fellow’s blood pressure, track his heart beat, take his temperature and measure stress levels. If there were minor trouble, the app would act like a “virtual mother” and suggest a home remedy. For something more serious, the app would flash the names and numbers of doctors he should think about seeing.
You can see the full student presentations in this video (link) and on these storyboards (link).
Whether any of these ideas will make it to the marketplace will be up to Verizon’s senior leadership, Lloyd said. “We are still evaluating these ideas, but the thought is to use the concepts to develop a business case around how our technology can enable personal wellness.”
Yet it’s already clear that Verizon valued the experience, signing on to sponsor three more years of brainstorming projects with Philadelphia University. The focus of inquiry hasn’t yet been determined, Spinelli said.
The experience was “incredibly fulfilling,” Spinelli said. “When we had our roll-out, and the Verizon people came, and the students presented their projects to the public, it was like going to your daughter’s wedding. It made you feel that proud.”
“It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a project,” said Raufer, the MBA candidate, “but also the most rewarding.”
Until working on the Nexus Learning Challenge, Raufer didn’t know that “Verizon was into health care or had a non-profit arm.”
“Understanding the full bench strength that Verizon has is the take-away I got out of it,” he said. “And from a PhilaU perspective, I signed up to be relevant, I signed up to be a hybrid thinker, I wanted to be different and cutting edge. And I’m getting that.”
At the end of the project, Jordan, the industrial design student, was “spent, exhausted.” But the experience changed his career goals. Originally thinking his degree would help him gain acumen as a designer in the metal-fabrication industry, he’s now aiming much higher. After all, he has now blue-skyed potential new business directions for a major corporation.
“Now I see what an industrial designer really does, and the sky’s the limit,” he said.
“I thought it was great.”