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innovation

Meeting of the School of Graduate Studies, Research, and Innovation

Southern’s School of Graduate Studies recently expanded its portfolio to include research and innovation, to form the new School of Graduate Studies, Research, and Innovation (GSRI). “There are many exciting new initiatives at Southern,” says Christine Broadbridge, dean of GSRI as well as a physics/engineering researcher with expertise in nanotechnology and the education director for a National Science Foundation Center of Research Excellence at SCSU/Yale.  “We have a new president, a new provost, and a new strategic plan. Innovation is a big part of that plan.”

But how to define “innovation”? Broadbridge, who previously established the Office for STEM Innovation and Leadership (STEM-IL), points to innovation as the common theme between GSRI and STEM-IL. One of her goals, she says, is to engage in dialog with the internal and external communities to ask the questions, “What is innovation?” and “How does Southern define innovation?”

Nanotechnology students at SCSU's Academic Science and Laboratory Building

To begin the conversation, in May GSRI hosted a panel discussion at Southern on the Green to look at innovation in business and industry. This first “Defining Innovation” event was held in partnership between GSRI, UCONN School of Engineering, and the UConn School of Business. The panelists included representatives from a few companies listed by Forbes Magazine as among the World’s Most Innovative Companies:

  • From Alexion in New Haven: Rachael Alford, Vice President, Global Product Development
  • From Medtronic: Danyel Racenet, Director of Research and Development
  • From Assa Abloy: Amy Vigneux (Vigo), Director, Sustainable Building Solutions

“We started with experts – those that are in the trenches,” Broadbridge explains. The panel’s goal was to begin defining innovation for industry, and specifically Connecticut’s industry. “People at SCSU have been innovative for a long time,” Broadbridge says, “but how do we foster and encourage it? How do we teach students to be innovative as they move forward into their careers?  How do we most effectively reward and celebrate the innovations of our faculty, students, staff, and community? ”

professor and students in lab; SCSU Academic Science and Laboratory building

Essentially, she says, innovation is about collaboration and partnership – getting people to think about things in a way that they haven’t thought of before, and encouraging communication. Broadbridge has brought in an entrepreneur-in-residence, Deborah Santy, to help facilitate events around innovation and to help create partnerships with groups in the community. Santy says innovation is “anything new and different, and Christine has always been doing that.” She points to the SCSU BioScience Academic and Career Pathway Initiative (BioPath) and Southern’s systemwide Center for Nanotechnology as examples of innovation. Santy is working closely with industry to create curriculum that addresses its needs, while also helping students form partnerships with business.

She, along with Suzanne Huminski, who leads the Sustainability Office on campus, were organizers of the Innovation Connection event, as well as Robin Ann Bienemann, entrepreneur-in-residence at the UConn School of Engineering and the UConn School of Business. Huminski says that incorporating innovation into the classroom is best when it involves a process with protocols, as it does with business and industry. Innovation is about problem solving, she says, so the university needs to think about it educationally and offer programs that meet the needs of students.

Huminski makes the point that sustainability is at the intersection of multiple disciplines, and requires  innovative solutions to succeed. Fostering successful and scalable sustainability solutions means interdisciplinary collaboration, and asking what each discipline can bring to the table to solve sustainability challenges of many different types. She adds that students can benefit by learning to be innovative and how to create partnerships in their future careers.

Rain Harvester collecting water for recycling in front of SCSU Academic Science and Laboratory building

Both Santy and Broadbridge also emphasize that innovation is all about partnerships and collaboration. Previously, Santy was executive director of Connecticut’s SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) office, which worked with all the small businesses in the state and large businesses to bring innovation to Connecticut. Santy says that based on her experience, “I believe that every innovation I’ve seen involves partnership.”

Broadbridge is looking at continuing to define innovation and what it means at Southern. She points to the new Academic and Laboratory Science Building, designed as a collaborative, innovative space, as well as a new space in Buley, adjacent to the GSRI offices, designed for student collaboration. “We’re about initiatives that foster innovation and deliver it for our institution,” Broadbridge says. “I believe that there are many different types of innovation, depending on the context, and an infinite number of applications.”

students collaborating in private study room; SCSU Hilton C. Buley Library

From innovation in education to government, from healthcare to business, the resulting impacts on our society are without limit, Broadbridge says. “Innovation is a key driver for prosperity, opportunity, and growth in all sectors, and Southern is primed to become a regional leader in educational innovation through partnerships.”

Mawano Kambu

Powering through a diet of hot-cup ramen noodles and sleepless nights spent working at his kitchen table, Southern alumnus Mawano Kambeu, ’08, laid the foundation for what ultimately would be recognized by Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Club as the Best New Venture for 2015. “In Africa, it always seems you’re told what you cannot do. You need to stay positive and prove those people wrong,” says Kambeu, founder of the award-winning Dot Com Zambia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing ecommerce companies. The online service provides Zambians with a lifeline to merchandise from both local and international retailers (ranging from bus tickets to popular items from websites like eBay and Amazon.com) as well as fulfillment and shipping services.

Dot Com Zambia got its unofficial start in 2007 after Kambeu discovered that Amazon.com was not delivering U.S. goods to Zambia. Kambeu — who traveled between the two countries — would receive “shopping lists” from family and friends in Zambia, and would return to his homeland with multiple suitcases filled with the requested items.

“The world is getting smaller. We watch the same TV shows. We want the same things,” he says, noting that access to goods and services in Zambia is limited. Kambeu eventually started charging a premium on items he brought back. Meanwhile, his customers began asking for goods from the United Kingdom and China as well. The business expanded, moving out of Kambeu’s home in Derby, Conn., into warehouses in Orange, Conn., and Zambia — and today the company even has a presence in the United Kingdom and China.

A modern American success story, Kambeu worked for UPS (United Parcel Service) loading and doing odd jobs while pursing a Southern degree in business administration. While at Southern, he drafted a proposal for one of Dot Com Zambia’s services, Bus Tickets Zambia, a system that enables travelers to buy bus tickets online ahead of time. The service filled a basic need, says Kambeu, explaining that in Zambia consumers would typically pay for a ticket at a chaotic station or on the bus, and then wait for hours or even days before the bus filled and departed. Kambeu conducted market research and interviewed thousands of people to determine if they were willing to pay extra for more convenient ticketing and service. His “on-the-ground” audience analysis helped Dot Com Zambia adapt its ticketing strategies to the needs and customs of the locals, giving the company an edge over larger, more well-known competitors.

Kambeu’s corporate experience helped him compete as well. After UPS, he moved on to Prudential Financial. He initially sorted papers at the company but quickly rose through the ranks to the position of manager of investment and sales. He says his greatest hurdle was quitting his job at Prudential and moving back to Zambia where he struggled for two years to build the business. “There will always be a headwind,” says Kambeu. “My personal philosophy is to find a way around obstacles.”

It hasn’t been easy, however. Problems with differing social customs, weak infrastructure, and politics continue to be roadblocks for Kambeu and his team, which now includes 23 employees plus additional contractors. But the entrepreneur remains undeterred. “Let’s work on what we control; What’s Plan A, Plan B, Plan C? We want to do what’s good for the country,” he says.

In 2014, Dot Com Zambia brought in $741,000 in revenue, and more recently, has received $500,000 from investors. With growth comes change, and Kambeu now serves as managing director of the company and reports to an executive board.

Meanwhile, Dot Com Zambia’s success is both measurable and motivational. In November 2014, the company was named the runner-up in the Top Start Up category at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Tech-I competition, led by the U.S. Department of State. The following year, the company was named the Best New Venture in Africa at Harvard Business School, winning $15,000 in support. Kambeu also won the Zambian Government Award and the Zambian Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

He says he’ll never forget his experiences as a struggling student and attributes the foundation of his success to Southern, particularly lessons learned from a practical business writing class taught by Jennifer Lee Magas, adjunct professor of English and the vice president of communications at Magas Media Consultants. As a result of the assignments, particularly the proposal, he felt prepared to follow his entrepreneurial passion, and he has willingly returned to Southern to share his experiences with today’s students.

“Life is a sound bite,” says Kambeu. “From the job to everyday life, it’s all about pitching. And if you love what you do and can communicate your passion, you will find success.”

Summer issue of Southern Alumni Magazine 2016