When Dean Pete Brews and the South Carolina SmartState Program signed off on the creation of the SmartState Center for Innovation + Commercialization at the University of South Carolina (UofSC), a key “raison d’être” for the Center was to develop educational experiences at the intersection of strategy, innovation management, science and technology. The Center was uniquely charged with designing educational experiences that bring together students in business and in STEM fields, including students of the SmartState Endowed Chairs.
Going into the fall 2021 semester, Laura B. Cardinal, PhD, the SmartState Endowed Chair for Innovation + Commercialization, is launching the Center’s new, four-course Strategic Innovation Certificate. At the heart of this certificate is Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation (SMTI), a course with demonstrated success attracting students from across UofSC’s colleges, schools, and SmartState labs since 2016.
In keeping with the Center’s mandate, Cardinal invites her fellow SmartState Endowed Chairs at UofSC to encourage their students to take SMTI. This, she promises, instills in students a knowledge of business, fuels a passion for innovation and pursuing novel technologies, and makes them more attractive to future employers.
A desire to bring a new product or technology to market is one reason why SMTI’s following continues to grow among SmartState students. During the spring 2021 semester, doctoral students from three SmartState Centers across campus enrolled in SMTI. These are their stories.
Madeleine Meyer, PhD Student
SmartState Endowed Chair Jamie Lead, PhD
SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR)
When Madeleine Meyer graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, she immediately moved to South Carolina and accepted a job with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), eager for a career in forensic science. Missing academia, Meyer traded her job at SLED for a position within SmartState Endowed Chair Jamie Lead’s laboratory to study and work toward her own PhD.
Today, Meyer is solving the issues of removing heavy metal waste from industrial wastewater. It is fascinating work and requires a deep understanding of hard chemistry. However, Meyer realized she also needs to understand business to make herself—and any patented technology she creates—more attractive to corporations as well as universities.
“Dr. Lead shared Dr. Cardinal’s invitation to take SMTI with me. I am working on my first prototype of a wastewater remediation technology and thought the class would be useful; I am abysmally ignorant of how business works,” she says with a laugh.
Meyer found SMTI enlightening. “It helped tremendously with the language of business, which is very different from how we speak in a lab setting. As a PhD candidate, you get used to being in courses with other scientists. In SMTI, you interact with students from other disciplines and learn from diverse opinions. For me, it was a real brain exercise.”
One of the most powerful lessons learned for Meyer was that negative feedback is really positive and plays an important role in bringing startup companies forward. “Negative comments feed your hypothesis just as positive comments do. If you’re wrong, you must be able to step back, understand why what you’re doing is wrong and start over. Pivots are part of innovation.”
Meyer is considering working for a startup company or as a consultant one day. In the meantime, she hopes to be among the first to earn a Strategic Innovation Certificate when it launches this coming fall. “I took SMTI to understand commercialization. The certificate will make me more marketable,” she says.
Bryan Holloman, PhD Student, Biomedical Sciences
SmartState Endowed Chair Mitzi Nagarkatti, PhD
SmartState Center for Cancer Drug Discovery
Bryan Holloman, a native of Columbus, Georgia, originally intended to be a physician. After realizing what he truly enjoyed was working in a laboratory, he found a master’s program at Fort Valley State University in biotechnology. While earning his degree, he decided to combine his dual interests in biotech and business. Before diving into the world of startups, Holloman first wanted to earn a PhD in biomedical sciences. After some searching, he found a fellowship program in cancer biology at the Columbus State University. Next, he applied and was admitted into the UofSC’s School of Medicine Columbia.
While working in the research lab of SmartState Endowed Chair Mitzi Nagarkatti, Holloman heard about SMTI. “It combined everything I’m interested in—innovation, technology and business—and I enrolled.”
Holloman says from the first week, SMTI gave him a new perspective on how to think. “The diversity of backgrounds was so valuable. It helped the businesspeople and scientists navigate through how each other thinks. And to get to innovation, you have to understand both perspectives,” he says.
Cardinal presented three aspects integral to advancing innovation within an organization that struck a chord with Holloman. “It broke down to how do I think, how do I implement, how do I change? Each stage is important,” he says.
Another significant takeaway for Holloman was learning how to build a strong network within UofSC and other universities in South Carolina. “The SmartState Program has Centers of Excellence at UofSC, Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina. Working with Dr. Nagarkatti and Dr. Cardinal through SMTI gives me access to the SmartState network.”
Holloman plans to be among the first to earn a Strategic Innovation Certificate. Meanwhile, he is focusing on developing natural compounds as alternatives to traditional drugs to treat common diseases. Now that sounds like a startup in the making.
Laura Murdock, PhD Student, Organic Chemistry
SmartState Endowed Chair Brian Benicewicz, PhD
SmartState Center for Polymer Nanocomposites
As a little girl, Laura Murdock discovered her love of polymer science in a unique way. She would steal her baby sister’s diapers, cut them apart, and try to understand the gel material that made them so absorbent. “No one stopped me,” she says mischievously.
Fast forward, Murdock is pursuing a PhD in organic chemistry in the laboratory of SmartState Endowed Chair Brian Benicewicz. Her research is focused on polymer membranes that are used in electrochemical fuel cells. Already, Murdock has invented a process and has filed for four U.S. patents. Her research is funded by BASF, which hopes to commercialize her technology.
Murdock’s technology reads like a play out of the SMTI playbook. “The technology BASF has been using is 20 years old,” explains Murdock. “My technology updates the technique to a membrane they have been using, to achieve enhanced performance without the use of organic solvents.”
Knowing of Murdock’s goal to enter industry after earning her PhD, Benicewicz shared Cardinal’s invitation to take her SMTI course. “SMTI is like the intersection of science and innovation, keeping in mind the management component,” Murdock says. “I was really interested in the principles of innovation and also wanted the strengthen the skills I need to get into industry. By taking SMTI, I believed I would be a step ahead of other graduates.”
The course exceeded her expectations. “The way Dr. Cardinal leads the course is very collaborative. SMTI is discussion-based, so it opens your mind to new ideas from businesspeople and scientists. By the end of the course, I was more confident about the work I was doing in Dr. Benicewicz’ lab. What I learned will definitely impact how I design new polymers for a more sustainable planet,” she says.
Murdock highly recommends other graduate and PhD students in STEM take SMTI, especially those planning a career in research and development. Because she is graduating soon, she is not able to pursue the Strategic Innovation Certificate though she would if she could.