Random coffee meet-ups spur innovation at U-M
ANN ARBOR—He designs algorithms to optimize ship speeds for competing needs. She studies the science of motivation to understand what makes people stick to their health and fitness goals.
These University of Michigan professors—Nickolas Vlahopoulos, a professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, and Michelle Segar, director of U-M’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center—appeared to have little in common. But once they connected through Innovate Brew, things got interesting.
Innovate Brew is a first-of-its-kind program that randomly matches U-M faculty for 30-minute coffee meetings once a month to foster more innovative thinking on campus.
“As soon as Nick said decision-making with competing interests, I realized that’s our sweet spot right there,” Segar said. “I thought the intersection of our work would make a good pilot project, exploring how to create a decision-making tool to help clinicians and patients.”
Last summer, more than 260 U-M faculty took part in the pilot phase of the social networking experiment to spark research innovation. The permanent program kicked off this fall and is open to all U-M faculty.
“At a large institution like Michigan with so many distinct programs of excellence, it’s not uncommon for disciplinary islands to form,” said Oscar Ybarra, director of Innovate Blue, U-M’s campuswide innovation and entrepreneurship initiative. “Innovate Brew is like a bridge between these islands.”
By creating opportunities for informal encounters with faculty outside their own fields, the program builds on the idea that such random pairings can not only create new connections, but also spark innovation and new research directions. The theory behind this practice is based on innovation as a social, not individual, phenomenon.
The approach was born of an experiment initiated by business professor Bill Lovejoy, when he emailed fellow U-M faculty he didn’t know and invited them out for coffee.
“Why would a business school professor talk to a classics professor, or an economist speak to an art historian? Because that is how innovation really happens,” Lovejoy said.
“If everyone at the University of Michigan had a random coffee once a month, within a year we’d have a more innovative organization.”
Vlahopoulos was matched with five other faculty, but only met with three. The meeting with Segar was the only one that might lead to a research project, but he doesn’t view the others as a waste of time.
“It’s an opportunity to interact with colleagues, find out what they do and get the bigger picture of the richness of our university,” Vlahopoulos said.
Other interesting pairings and outcomes:
- A business strategy professor and a professor of mechanical engineering found they were working on common initiatives such as clean technology in China and smart mobility in the auto industry.
- A faculty member in pediatric endocrinology studying obesity matched with a senior faculty in the anthropology department studying the developmental effects of high blood pressure and low birth weight in Mali. They ended up submitting a joint proposal to extend some of the endocrinologist’s work to this population in Africa.
- An ophthalmology professor met with and an electrical engineering and computer systems professor and found a common interest in artificial vision.
Tom Gardner, a Kellogg Eye Center ophthalmologist whose research focuses on diabetes retinopathy, said it’s too early to know the outcomes.
“If it doesn’t lead to a project, that’s OK,” he said. “One has to enjoy the social interaction and being part of the Michigan community.”
Lovejoy said that one of the preconceptions the program has to fight is that any one connection is going to be productive immediately for research.
“There are some scholars who see every research interaction through the lens of ‘Can I write a grant for this?'” Lovejoy said. “If not, it’s not worth their time.”
But he would suggest the skeptics try a random coffee meeting at least once before deciding if it’s worthwhile.
“Innovate Brew has reminded me how important it is to stay open-minded,” Gardner said. “The investment is low, the coffee’s good here in Ann Arbor and taking time to meet people who know things you don’t is the most important thing you’ll do all day.”
Anita Gonzalez, professor of theatre and drama, recently met Carlos Mendes de Leon, an epidemiology professor, and said the experience confirms her view that U-M is more interdisciplinary than any place at which she’s taught.
“I’ve learned about the amazing things we do at Michigan. I’ve met people who study airplanes and document oral histories of various communities,” she said. “The cool thing about Michigan is everyone wants to fix the world, but in an idiosyncratic way.”