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Bring Industry to the Classroom (and Vice Versa)

Two biomedical engineering professors share tips for building a bridge between academia and industry—with benefits for all involved.

Bringing Industry to the Classroom (and Vice Versa)


From Rutgers University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering:

  • Kristen Labazzo, PhD, MBA, Professor of Professional Practice
  • Susan Engelhardt, MS, Executive Director

For Kristen Labazzo and Susan Engelhardt of Rutgers University, getting students prepared for the real world means steeping them in it well before they graduate. While more and more schools (and more and more majors) are recommending (and sometimes requiring) that students participate in internships, externships, and work experiences outside the classroom, many students still do not seek them out. By the same token, many businesses do not make much of an attempt to partner with schools to access their resources, even though it may benefit their bottom line (more on that later).

Faced with this reality, Labazzo and Engelhardt feel part of their role in the Department of Biomedical Engineering is to help build a bridge between the university and industry—or, from a business point of view, toward the application of academic learnings. The question for them was: What do we need to do at the university level to make this happen?

Thanks to their decades of combined industry experience and their current key roles on campus—Labazzo directs the Medical Device Development Center and Engelhardt directs the Center for Innovative Ventures of Emerging Technologies—these educators are perfectly positioned to forge such ties and, in turn, better prepare their students to become competitive contenders in the job market.

Described below are some of the approaches they use to reach out to community businesses, build and strengthen relationships, and maximize student interaction with industry, both on and off campus. Perhaps best of all, these educators assert that these strategies may be adapted across various areas of study and in a wide variety of university settings.

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Brainstorm possible networking channels

The first step for a college department to foster strong linkages with industry is to network through any and all channels available to them, say Labazzo and Engelhardt. This may include an industry advisory board, the college’s foundation, trade organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, and personal and previous workplace connections.

Also, be sure to extend your reach within a reasonable distance, not just into your own backyard: Rutgers, for example, is within a four-hour driving distance of 1,500 pharmaceutical biotech and medical device companies. “We’re connected by virtue of where we are located!” says Labazzo of the school’s opportunities to make connections. However, educators in any field may be pleasantly surprised by the wealth of opportunities nearby, once they do some research both online and in person.

Make your face known

Labazzo and Engelhardt regularly attend events where local business leaders might turn up, and they often run into many of the same people over and over at different gatherings. In this way, they get to know these industry representatives fairly well, and they can foster trusted connections from there.

Engelhardt remarks that the response to her industry outreach has been largely positive. She says there is a genuine curiosity among companies: “They want to be part of the conversation regarding leading-edge academic research, but don’t necessarily know whom to contact or how to begin the dialog,” she says.

Show businesses how they will benefit

Forging a strong connection between university and industry, say Labazzo and Engelhardt, is a win-win-win, for student, school, and industry. However, to convince businesses to get involved, you may need to highlight “what’s in it for them.”

Engelhardt says, “We are starting a dialog around industry’s influence on academic curricula. In other words, having industry communicate to us the skills and perspective that they value in [new] recruits and better preparing our students to succeed in those arenas. By fostering such partnerships, companies can engage with a student who can contribute immediately to the organization.”

Offer access to university resources

Another way to entice industry leaders is to allow them to use equipment that is available on campus, but perhaps not in their workplace. When Labazzo is networking, for instance, she often has someone approach her and say, “I have a friend who’s working with a startup and he’s prototyping, but he doesn’t have a 3-D printer or laser cutter.” Labazzo is more than happy to connect that entrepreneur with the school’s medical device development center and contract with him or her to use these high-tech tools.

Other times, the campus serves as a site to field-test new products. In this case, companies get direct feedback about how their equipment is working from students who are using it in their own cutting-edge research. Students benefit by getting an insider’s look into the product development process.

“We develop a statement of work, we make a timeline, and I request a student with whom to work (who gets paid),” says Labazzo. “At the end of a few months, we’ve had a few meetings, and the prototypes get done. Not only are [students] earning money [for their time], they also get exposure to an industrial product.… They get exposure to business lingo and timelines.”

Ask about funding for research grants

“Companies may have an interest in collaborating with Rutgers; they’re paying for top-notch talent and research [that may help their company] with their next big idea. In return, Rutgers gets research dollars and students get exposure to industry.”

— Kristen Labazzo, PhD, MBA

Companies are always interested in having access to research, but they may not want to dedicate their own employees’ time or to fund the research in its entirety. When this is the case, Labazzo notes, a business may want to contribute to the university through grants. She says, “Companies may have an interest in collaborating with Rutgers; they’re paying for top-notch talent and research [that may help their company] with their next big idea. In return, Rutgers gets research dollars and students get exposure to industry.” It is a win both ways.

Use students to solve problems in the field

At Rutgers, every fourth-year engineering student must complete a design project, under the guidance of an academic mentor. Labazzo can hardly contain her excitement as she describes her own experience mentoring students last year, partnering with Matheny, a nearby hospital for children and adults with special needs and medically complex developmental disabilities. “Hands down, this mentorship project is one of my favorite things I do with the students here!” she says.

Working in three groups, the students observed patients, doctors, and nurses, and then they noted any struggles experienced with the equipment and identified areas for improvement. Finally, the students worked together to innovate helpful modifications for existing devices that would address these challenges. Two of the teams initiated the patent application process with Rutgers’ Office of Research Commercialization.

In a similar fashion, Engelhardt directs a distinction program for medical students at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The program pairs clinicians from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Barnabas Health with these medical students to identify gaps in healthcare and establish business frameworks to bring innovative products and services to market. A review board assesses the students’ pitch and plan, and if approved, they receive a Distinction in Medical Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the school. “Between the clinician and the student, you’ve got a motivated team that exudes passion for patient-centered healthcare and resulting societal benefit,” says Engelhardt. “The medical students gain an appreciation of the business framework that informs a successful product launch, and the clinicians have an opportunity to bring their innovative ideas to fruition.”

“We teach our students to ask, ‘Am I solving something that will have a veritable impact on patient care?’ They have to analyze the market and assess competitive products to ensure that they are solving a [real] problem in a way that has yet to be commercialized.”

— Susan Engelhardt, MS

Further, these field experiences help students understand the market competition in their field and what is necessary to bring their ideas to fruition. Engelhardt believes that projects like this respond to viable market needs. “We teach our students to ask, ‘Am I solving something that will have a veritable impact on patient care?’” says Engelhardt. “They have to analyze the market to ensure that they are solving a [real] problem.”

As an added benefit, students have an opportunity to receive a percentage of patent royalties if their patent is granted. Labazzo was herself one such student. “I filed a patent [here] while I was a graduate student back in 2002,” she says. “Every once in a while, I get a check because of it.”

Create a campus job-preparedness program

For truly ambitious educators, the final step in uniting the university with industry might be the creation of an official, holistic program to foster connections.

At Rutgers, Engelhardt co-directs (with Rutgers’ Graduate School) the iJOBS program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which prepares PhD students and postdocs for nonacademic careers in the biomedical and life sciences. In Phase 1 of the program, career panels, workshops, and site visits abound so that students can explore the professional possibilities. Phase 2 requires students to submit applications, and approximately 20 students are selected to proceed. These students shadow professionals in externship programs related to their areas of career interest and take classes focused on skills required for successful pursuit of their professional journey. In Phase 3, trainees pursue professional placement and, in Phase 4, program alumni “give back” to the program serving as externship hosts, mentors, and programming partners.

The program relies heavily on student feedback, surveying students before they start, when they are in the middle of the program, and for five years after they graduate—all of which allows the program to evolve and improve, as the industry itself moves forward.

The results have been promising, and trainees have expanded their career foci from a pure research and development focus to functional areas such as clinical and regulatory, public policy, science communications, and other areas where they can serve as subject matter experts in healthcare and biomedical sciences. Says Engelhardt, “The iJOBS program has allowed its trainees to explore, prepare for, and attain immediate employment in careers of their choice. It has been so successful that there is discussion about replicating it within the undergraduate [engineering] departments as well!”

Classroom Engagement Tips

To really make their lessons resonate in the classroom, these educators focus on making the subject—and themselves—approachable.

“We’re not boring when we teach; we make it relatable and fun! We don’t stand there and read from a textbook; we make the students actually [go out and] do it!” says Engelhardt.

“Experiential-based programming rocks, that’s the bottom line, right, K?” Engelhardt asks of her colleague. Without missing a beat, Labazzo chimes in, “Heck yeah!”

Partner students with hospitals

The saying is that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and Engelhardt and Labazzo couldn’t agree more. Learnings in a classroom setting are essential toward a university degree, but getting out and understanding the context of those learnings can be valuable as well. Toward that end, Labazzo directs the program at Matheny, described above, and Engelhardt runs a “Health Care Clinical Immersion” program, where biomedical engineering students experience the practical side of healthcare. Offered with the support of partnering hospitals, students explore various aspects of the clinical environment and establish dialog with clinicians for the purposes of understanding the healthcare environment.

Engelhardt comments, “The students shadow clinicians in situ; they observe a plethora of procedures in the operating rooms, immerse in areas such as surgery, interventional radiology, trauma, mobile health across all medical disciplines, including neurology, cardiothoracic, endovascular, and many others. The students grow from the experience and have shared that the experience provided them with real-world perspective for future application of their earned degrees.”

Bring business ideas into the curriculum

At the semester’s end, rather than expecting an academic thesis, Labazzo and Engelhardt ask their students to consider elements that exist in the business world, such as timelines, budgets, customer profiles, competitors, and cost-benefit analyses. By thinking about business plans and goals while they are in college, students develop additional talking points for future interviews with employers. “Employers will say, ‘Oh you’ve written a business plan before!’,” says Labazzo. “Then the students’ experiences are demonstrable to their potential employers.”