Innovation comes full-circle in UW-Madison student seminar series
A decade ago, Chad Sorenson took his first steps toward becoming an inventor and entrepreneur by competing in and winning the Schoofs Prize for Creativity as a University of Wisconsin-Madison mechanical engineering student.
Today, with two successful companies and a wealth of business experience under his belt, Sorenson is back on the engineering campus, serving as mentor for current students who want to try their own hand at entrepreneurship. Sorenson is teaching the new Innovation Days Seminar Series, a weekly tutorial on everything it takes to transform a creative idea into a commercially viable product.
And while competing isn’t a course requirement, many of the students in his Thursday evening seminar are preparing to become stronger competitors in the Schoofs Prize and the Tong Prototype Prize, the two staples of the influential — and potentially lucrative — Innovation Days held on campus every February. UW-Madison undergraduate students compete for $25,000 in prizes for the most commercially viable products and best prototypes.
By teaching the Thursday evening seminar, Sorenson says he hopes not only to increase the number of student entries in the 15-year-old competitions, but ultimately produce more entries that have a shot at commercial success.
Chad Sorenson (large image)
“I have learned a lot of things in the past decade that are really not taught in the traditional engineering or business curriculums,” Sorenson says. “As a graduate of engineering and business at UW-Madison, I have a good feel for the additional areas of education and support these students will need to be successful.”
One would be hard pressed to find a better fit to teach the course than Sorenson. Not only did he win the Schoofs Prize in 2000, he followed up in 2001 by winning the Tong Prototype Prize and finished second the same year in the G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition. The grand idea behind all three entries — a technology that helps farmers remotely monitor their fertilizer application rates — became a successful company, Fluent Systems, that Sorenson sold for $1.5 million about two years after graduating from UW-Madison.
Sorenson is currently president and CEO of Middleton-based Sologear Inc., which is developing a product on a far grander scale. The company is marketing a charcoal-grilling alternative called FlameDisk, which uses a unique ethanol-based fuel that burns cleaner and with less cleanup challenges than charcoal. Sologear began national distribution and marketing of FlameDisk this year and the product can be found in dozens of grocery, hardware and home improvement chains.
One of Sorenson’s goals with the course is to unlock the creative process in students, and demonstrate the many concrete steps behind finding and developing good ideas. He says the class will buck the stereotype that good inventions result from serendipity or luck.
“Many people do not consider themselves creative and use this as an excuse not to pursue innovation on their own,” he says. “However, like most things, creativity is a skill than can be learned.”
The 11-week series, which began October 1, will be held every Thursday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in 1610 Engineering Hall. The not-for-credit seminar is free and any interested students are welcome to attend parts or all of the series. To learn more, visit the Innovation Days site at innovation.engr.wisc.edu.
Future series topics include: The origins of innovation (Oct. 8); unlocking the creative process (Oct. 15); assessing and selecting projects (Oct. 22); product development and prototyping (Oct. 29 and Nov. 6); market research and business analysis (Nov. 12 and Nov. 19); intellectual property and commercializing inventions (Dec. 3 and Dec. 10); and finding financial support (Dec. 17).
As part of the seminar series, Sorenson also has invited experienced and knowledgeable guest lecturers to present. On Thursday, Dec. 3, for example, Jonathan Fritz, a registered patent attorney with the law firm of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C., will be presenting on intellectual property and patents. Fritz also has agreed to be part of the new Innovation Days Board of Advisors that Sorenson is assembling to act as a mentoring panel of industry specialists available for assistance to the Innovation Days student participants.