The Debrief: Kevin Craig, Hofstra’s innovation man

Kevin Craig: Mecha man.

Few people can legitimately claim to be innovating innovation itself. But when Kevin Craig agreed to lead Hofstra University’s new Center for Innovation, he insisted that private companies working with the center be allowed to keep their intellectual property, unique among university-based innovation programs. Six months in, the mechanical engineering professor – who also runs the school’s Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory – believes the distinction will prove a major difference-maker, not only for the school and the companies, but for the Long Island economy. He says:

HANDS-OFF IP: There’s not a person that I’ve met who doesn’t believe it’s a game-changer. The IP is what gives a company its competitive advantage. I believe this approach outweighs any financial gain Hofstra might receive in the future from the IP rights.

TEAM SPIRIT: The other unique thing about the Center for Innovation is the ability to create a team to work with our companies, with team members who can come from anywhere. It’s not just Hofstra scientists. I’m working on one project with a mechatronics professor at Columbia University I’ve worked with before. If we don’t have the expertise in house, we can go create a team tailored for whatever the company needs.

STUDENT DRIVER: At Hofstra, it’s all about preparing future engineers by putting them in touch with the latest technologies. By showing them how we collaborate, we’re creating a whole new generation of innovators. This semester, we have seven senior projects where the deliverables involve a working prototype. The students’ work is happening in the same physical space as the Center for Innovation work. When the students see what we’re doing with these other companies, they get excited. They see it all happening around them and they become inspired. They become experienced. They become more professional, and very quickly.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE: Meanwhile, the companies get a team of experts they couldn’t possibly assemble otherwise. We tell them what we can deliver, when we can deliver it and how much it will cost. The small overhead goes right back into the center, while the company gets its team and advanced productivity and hopefully greater success.

WORD TO THE WISE: I’ve been working very hard to get the word out. Assembling a team of scientists from not only Hofstra, but from Marquette or Georgia Tech or the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is exactly what these companies need, and leaving the intellectual property with the sponsoring company is unique in the country, I believe. We’re working hard to attract companies to bring their projects to the center.

CURRENT EVENTS: We’re working with two doctors from the Feinstein Institute on a project dealing with hydrocephalus, developing new technologies to relieve fluid pressure on the brain with a computer-controlled device. Another project we’ve just started is with a startup company in the Harlem Biospace, a company called IrOs that formulates antimicrobial polymers.

COMING SOON: We have two projects in the works with Rockwell Automation, a company based in Milwaukee and Cleveland that I worked with at Marquette and at Rensselaer. We’ve just been talking but I’m confident they will happen. The center has other projects starting to develop, but what’s really going to make this take off is one or two success stories. We have to complete some projects successfully and show our capabilities, and that will get the word out very quickly.

MODEL BEHAVIOR: When we talk about innovation, we’re talking about doing things in a new way. New ways for engineers to make better use of the math and physics that are the foundation of technology, in what we call model-based design. Only through the use of modeling can we truly innovate, quickly and cost-effectively, with greater insight and understanding.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S PRODUCTION PROTOCOLS: It’s a cultural change and a very difficult one to effect. We’re preparing our students to be catalysts for change, to show companies this new way of innovating. It’s not that engineers don’t know how to do this, it’s that they haven’t done it – maybe ever – because time is of the essence and it’s much easier in a corporate environment to just build things. Building new hardware often indicates progress. But when you model it, you understand it better. That’s a change that needs to happen.

MAKING SURE WE GET IT: When engineers are just forced to deliver, deliver, deliver, yeah, they deliver, but it’s not innovative. It’s not new. It’s not leapfrogging the competition. The pressure to just push something out the door is anti-innovation.

TAKING ADVANTAGE: It’s hard to measure the center’s economic impact so far. Everyone is busy. Finding the right venues to get the message out isn’t easy. But showing how we contributed to the competitive advantage of a company that kept its IP, that’s what will really help us attract new companies. Once we can say that, we will have a real impact on the region and all of New York State. When you start a venture like this, it’s hard to get people to believe you can do it. But we will.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER