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Case graduate students solve real-world corporate issues through new company

MTV has its version of the “Real World,” where seven strangers are put in a house where they “stop being polite” and “start getting real.” While “The Real World” is a heavily-edited TV show, six graduate students in Case Western Reserve University’s master’s of engineering and management program are getting a real dose of the real world—starting their own business while still in school. They’ve even won a bid to contract with a Fortune 500 company.

You can’t get any more real than that.

These new “innovation consultants” took the advice of chemical engineering professor Gary Wnek, who suggested that instead of focusing on individual projects for a class, the students form their own company which would force them to perform individual functions in that context.

The students, Shehzad Ashfaq, Shruti Lal, Tamara Franke, Dave Hyson, John Landers and Brad Kleinman, have created Lake Effect Innovation, a limited liability company that has two main objectives: Helping companies apply new techniques of innovation management and reducing barriers to entry into the business world for entrepreneurs. They take their name, “Lake Effect,” from the well-known weather phenomenon that Northeast Ohioans can rely upon each year to dump lots of snow in the area during the winter months.

They also are pursuing master’s degrees from Case’s engineering and management (MEM) program. Case is the only university in the country to offer a fully integrated academic program that treats engineering and management as they occur in the real world.

Ashfaq, Lake Effect’s president, said the contract with the Fortune 500 company has yet to be finalized, however “we [have] won the bid,” he said. “We are in the process of negotiations.”

“We all have [undergraduate] engineering degrees and what we wanted to do was leverage that background and the engineering and management education we’re receiving in the MEM program,” he added. “One of the ways to do that is through a company, so we can put what we are learning to practical use. We want real world business experience and this is the best way to get it.”

Ashfaq is 23. His five colleagues are in the same age range.

“The coolest thing is really learning what goes into starting a business,” said Franke, also 23 and Lake Effect’s vice president of finance. “Our coursework doesn’t allow us to experience all the details of running a real business. There’s so much more than you can learn in a class. Here, we’re learning what building a business really takes.”

The MEM program’s unique blend of faculty members from the Case School of Engineering and the Weatherhead School of Management, with additional instruction from industry partners, provides a huge advantage to its students, says Wnek. The Institute for Management and Engineering (TiME) offers the MEM degree.

The Lake Effect group has a set meeting time every week, and meets at other times as needed. One of the first decisions the group made was to settle on who had how much time to dedicate to the company.

“Someone might say, ‘I can do 10 hours a week,’ so we’d think of something that would take about that much time,” Franke said. “Some are busier with other things, but we all have our specific input into it.”

The company has filed to have its name approved and to be recognized by the Ohio Secretary of State. They also have rented office space in downtown Cleveland. Lake Effect also is partnering with a Detroit-based company, Ideation International Inc., which does innovation consulting. Ideation teaches companies how to be innovative within themselves, Ashfaq explains.

“We have partnered with Ideation and are getting trained in their methodology,” he said. “We hope to leverage this relationship to be more competitive in obtaining contracts in the Ohio region.”

Wnek says the students’ coursework prepares them to hit the ground running once they graduate. His six students, however, are taking their coursework a step further.

“It takes more than just a technical background to solve problems in industry,” said Wnek, co-director of TiME and the Joseph F. Toot, Jr. Professor of Engineering at Case. “Business leaders said, ‘Give us technically talented engineers who can impact their employer immediately by being adept at the business side of things. Graduates take on additional responsibility more rapidly than their peers who have not had the integrated training.”

While Franke already has a job lined up at Goodyear’s Global Engineering and Manufacturing Technology Department after graduation in May, she said they plan to groom new students coming up behind them to continue the business.

“Our hope is that we have this company and that with each class, new students will take over our positions,” she said. “It’s a way for students to get work experience, and to get valuable experience in running their own company – real world experience before they get a full-time job. So we are actively recruiting students from the new MEM class.”

So far, she adds, interest from the new class doesn’t seem to be a problem.

To learn more about Lake Effect Innovation, visit http://www.LakeEffectInnovation.com.

 

About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.