Students in Virginia Tech’s Executive MBA program in metro Washington, D.C., were given an opportunity this summer to evaluate patents held by The Aerospace Corporation and make recommendations to company executives on the best ways of commercializing them.
Ed Swallow, vice president of Vaeros, a division of Aerospace, said he was impressed with the students’ team presentations and came away with action points from each of them.

One immediate result: Swallow is taking one portfolio recommendation directly to the CIO to see if there is potential for a swap with a supplier that would cut costs in return for access to new technologies.

A fresh take

“I found that the students had a true diversity of thinking and a fresh look at the information,” said Swallow after listening to all the presentations. “I was looking for a way to get independent eyes on our technology portfolio and working with Virginia Tech really created a win-win situation.”
He said that the patents — not so technical that nontechnical students wouldn’t understand them — were those that Aerospace had not yet engaged with because they fall into unfamiliar markets.

“We wanted to know whether there was a real market for the portfolios,” Swallow explained. “I expected to see one or two recommendations that would seem too farfetched to be real, but in fact all were realistic, had reasonable valuations, and a strong approach to the market.”
Joining Swallow for the presentations were David McQuiggan, principal director, and Lisa Hague, strategic planning specialist, at Vaeros. Both agreed with him on the high quality of the students’ research and analysis.

Real-world applications

Hague said that the skills found among Virginia Tech’s Executive MBA students proved a good match for this Aerospace project. “Each team provided an independent analysis with clear assumptions that can be validated and used to inform next steps from a business development perspective,” said McQuiggan, who is responsible for managing business development resources, business capture, solution development, and integrating Aerospace’s intellectual property portfolio with new business opportunities.

One of the Executive MBA students, Robert Badger, of Spotsylvania, Virginia, admitted he was “absolutely intimidated” when introduced to the syllabus contents for the Technology and Innovation Management class taught by Linda Oldham, executive director of the Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics in the Pamplin College of Business.

“But the opportunity to work with these highly challenging Aerospace patents in a real-world application stretched our cognitive powers, and by the end of the course, everyone on the team felt very confident in our deliverable,” Badger said. “This intense but very effective method of teaching not only reinforced the concepts in the texts but also provided real unforgettable impact in seeing how well our patent evaluation research presentation was received.”

Garrett DeWitt, of Arlington, Virginia, said he is “walking away from this course with a much more robust understanding of the possible uses of patents to increase business potential and techniques to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of existing and future patents. This is particularly important in the continually changing technology landscape where firms can be made or broken by patent decisions and protections.”

Salm Spina, of Oakton, Virginia, said that the patent project provided insights applicable to her professional life. She currently leads a design and development project at a major international hotel chain. “This class has helped me put pieces together to really appreciate the importance of making good business decisions.”

A mutually beneficial partnership

It was Hague who brought the idea of having students evaluate the patents to Swallow. Swallow’s familiarity with Virginia Tech led him to the university’s Executive MBA program. Swallow serves on President Tim Sands’ National Capital Region Leadership Council and has engaged with the Hume Center and the Virginia Tech Alumni Association. He has also hired a number of alumni in previous positions and is looking forward to bringing more on board at Aerospace.

This was his first interaction with Virginia Tech EMBA students but Swallow said it will not be his last. Aerospace is already evaluating the next cohort of patents to share. Oldham said she is looking forward to working with Aerospace in future classes.

“Real-world experience is an important component of all our university programs,” Oldham said. “And there is no better way than opportunities like this to show our students how learning and research translate to the marketplace.”

—Barbara Micale