Erica Grant, a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, spent the fall semester taking an undergraduate class in the Haslam College of Business that might change the course of her career. Haslam’s Product Development class helped her find a practical, marketable application for her research in quantum information.
Through the class, Fisher Professor of Innovative Learning, Ernie Cadotte, challenged students to guide a product from ideation to prototyping and customer trial.
“When students are engaged in the full process, things come up naturally that they wouldn’t have considered,” Cadotte says. “We give them guidance, but experience is the real teacher. On the first day, they choose one of three technologies to turn into products, and they pretty much take it from there.”
Two student groups leveraged technologies presented by area researchers. Grant had the unique distinction of presenting and working with her own technology—the quantum seal—and naturally became that product development team’s leader.
“An entrepreneurship course like this was exactly what I needed to help figure out how to take things that are theoretical and give them a marketable use,” Grant says.
Her team created a smart lock that uses technology measuring photon pairs to create random numbers. While smart locks, which use a digital code to unlock, are much more secure than physical locks with keys, they have a major vulnerability that has inhibited their growth.
“A computer isn’t strictly capable of creating anything random,” Grant says. “Any number it generates is based on an algorithm. So, if you figure out that algorithm, you can open any smart lock that uses it. That could mean every smart lock in a product line or every one ever sold by a particular company.”
Light particles, however, have a 50 percent chance of being measured as a 0 or 1 at any given time. The smart lock Grant’s team invented strings together collections of these measurements to create a one-time pass key that is essentially untraceable each time the quantum smart lock is locked.
“My lab discovered a method for extracting these random numbers, and this is the application result,” she says. That result has a patent pending and interest from Chinese investors.
Another team developed designer eyewear that they also are hoping to launch in the real world using a new ultra-light metal.
“We researched the market for eyewear, and there was this product line where customers had to choose something stylish and comfortable in plastic or durable but heavy in metal,” says MacKenzie Howarth, a senior marketing major.
Howarth’s team designed a pair of glasses that mimicked the shape of plastic models with a built-in saddle bridge in the new, moldable metal that feels lighter and more confortable than plastic. When they presented it to judges that were exactly their target market at the end of the semester, all were interested.
“I realized how much research goes into marketing a product before it’s created and exactly why,” Howarth says. “We took our interview questions down to the most basic level to address concerns customers didn’t even know they had. I loved doing that.”
Howarth says the class opened her eyes to a broader range of job opportunities. Her teammate Briana Sproles uses the skills she developed in her current work as a marketing consultant for a start-up out of Houston.
“All of this experience in class has been incredibly valuable,” Sproles, a senior marketing major, says. “There are certain questions you always have to consider with new products and now I know those questions. I only have to find the answers.”
The third and final group in the class used 3-D printing to create a golf putter to PGA specifications with a head shaped like a power T. The team hopes that it might be a luxury gift, even one that the university could give to key supporters.
“The students’ goal for the semester was to create a working prototype of a marketable product using state-of-the-art technology from UT or ORNL,” says Cadotte. “It is a real testament to these students that all of them were able to achieve this goal, and their reward is seeing their ideas take shape in the real world.”