‘Lear Innovation Challenge’ Jump-Starts Industry Connections

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Michigan Ross Evening MBA student Liang Huang was looking for a way to improve his business-pitch and teamwork skills. Meanwhile, top automotive supplier Lear Corp. was looking for ways to build deeper connections with universities and tap new sources of ideas.

Both hit their goals though the Lear Open Innovation Challenge earlier this month. The competition was open to students at U-M’s Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses, as well as Wayne State University. Out of 100 applicants, 27 were picked and formed teams to solve a real-world issue for Lear’s E-Systems unit.

The winning team received cash prizes and a summer internship at Lear to continue working on their solution.

Though Huang wasn’t on the winning team, he said the experience itself — which included two weeks of coaching and self-reflection before the big pitch to Lear’s top executives at its Detroit innovation center — was invaluable.

“It was incredibly useful and helpful for me,” says Huang. “I learned a lot about how to work with a diverse team, how to tackle a problem, develop an idea, and think about everything from cost to how it fits in a business portfolio.”

This inaugural event came together though Ross Professor Jeff DeGraff and Lear executives. DeGraff had been working with the company though the Innovatrium consultancy when they came up with the idea of a pitch competition for students.

“This isn’t about invention, but about learning how to build a solution,” says DeGraff. “How you make it on a mass scale, and how you sell this to the customer, and how it fits into the car’s design — there are a thousand moving parts you have to learn how to manage. It really jump-started both the students and Lear in terms of what they wanted to do.”

Bob Humphrey, Lear’s director of innovation management, said the students delivered. Each team took a different approach, and they ended up being similar ideas that company engineers were mulling but hadn’t proven yet.

“They were able to get on the right track on their own in two weeks, and that was pretty impressive,” says Humphrey.

He said Lear hopes to make this a regular event. Huang highly recommends other students get involved.

“The whole process is such a valuable experience for anyone going into business,” he says. “They helped us identify who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, and how to meet challenges in a positive way.”

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