Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation:
Connecting the “Want-To” the “How-To” the “Need-to”
By Debera Johnson
Issue 7 Spring 2011
Pratt Design Incubator Director Deb Johnson discusses the process of taking a new venture from an original idea to a fully realized business.
She begins by discussing how entrepreneurs develop their desire for new businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible. She examines the Incubator process, providing a step-by-step explanation of how new ventures get off the ground and running. She uses case studies of actual “Incubees” to demonstrate the value of the incubation process, exemplifying its commitment to fulfilling consumer desires in innovative new ways through design.
Paraphrased from the September 25, 2010 NPR radio broadcast “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” where host Peter Sagal interviews Delmar Smith, a lifetime Oklahoman, world-renowned birddog trainer and longtime rodeo gate-man of the Lazy–E steer roping finals.
AGAL: So what skills, what native skills do you need to have to be a good rodeo cowboy?
DELMAR: The want to.
PETER: The want-to.
PETER: So if I wanted to be a rodeo cowboy, I could do it?
DELMAR: I can see you’ve got the want-to. You may not be one of the top ones, but you could do it.
PETER: Oh, really? [How do you know?}
DELMAR: I’m watching your neck.
SAGAL: Oh, really?
DELMAR: You have a twitch in the neck.
SAGAL: And what does this tell you about me?
Mr. SMITH: That you’re setting on ready.
SAGAL: Is that a good thing? I was proud for a second, but what does that mean?
Mr. SMITH: That you’ve got the want-to and you’re sitting on ready.
The desire to take on the inherent risks of entrepreneurship requires a certain set of building blocks. It begins with an irresistibly good idea, a strong sense of independence and a willingness to take risks. This “want-to” energy – combined with an attitude of “setting on ready” — drives the entrepreneur through the “how-to” phase. This is an immense challenge, to steadfastly take on what you don’t know, fail, find success and not give up when confronted by the sheer enormity of it all.
Entrepreneurial thought processes are analogous to those of a designer: highly emergent, contextually-driven, and iterative by nature. Currently “Design-Thinking,” is used to describe the migration of design processes into the world of business., Design has become the model for approaches to innovation in our complex world.
Entrepreneurs are driven by their passion to build a product that is better than what’s already out there; designers are driven by their passion for making the user’s experience better. Social citizens are driven by their passion for making the world sustainable. Assembling the values of the social citizen, the designer and the entrepreneur to construct business models that challenge the status quo.
At this time the world is asking us all to consider the environmental and societal consequences associated with making a profit.
Consumers have begun to examine the consequences of their investments. Up and down the supply chain and value chain, this is the “need-to” that is stimulating change. In this era, the culture of socially responsible design entrepreneurship is thriving.
Finding design-driven entrepreneurs with good ideas and supporting them in creating successful, “triple bottom line businesses” is a key motivator of the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation. Started in 2002 as a part of the Industrial Design program at Pratt Institute, the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation emerged in res-ponse to three challenges:
1) the need for resources to advance viable concepts for new product opportunities,
2) decreased full time job opportunities for designers and a resulting increase in the freelancer life/work style, and
3) perhaps most importantly, the aftermath of 9/11 created a new urgency to do something relevant in a transformed world.
A freelance culture that became mainstream around the turn of the 21st Century resulted in changed expectations on the part of workers and a more transient, project-based work culture. Around the same time, interest in global warming was increasing as weather patterns and political strife reflected the depletion and overuse of the earth’s resources. People began to construct connections between work and social responsibility. But there were few places devoted to supporting the people who wanted to integrate sustainability, design and entrepreneurship into a viable business.
Generally, recent MBAs are trained to participate in running a segment of an organization and design graduates are trained to develop new designs. Few from either group have learned about how to integrate sustainable best practices into a profitable product or business. Identifying this gap focused the mission of the Pratt Design Incubator on creating a collaborative community of socially responsible startups that could learn, share resources and profit together.
In 2005, the Pratt Incubator expanded from one start-up business to five. As of January 2011, it expanded to eight start-ups. We continue to assemble a community with shared values, who are excited to work in a diverse and collaborative environment that will inspire, model and accelerate the launch of each of their values-based businesses. Incubator 2.0 connects “triple bottom line” accounting with a modern definition of design that insists that “consequences” be assessed along side form and function resulting in a new integrated model. The role of the incubator is to bring together resources and leverage them across the incubator community. The resulting community of start-ups actively participate in shared risk taking, learning and enhanced access to resources that speed the success of the individual start-ups.
The Incubator currently sponsors eight businesses, about 20 partners and over 30 interns. It has been involved with the launch of over 18 companies and all but two are still active. Our largest company, launched in 2003, is “KURGO,” a pet wellness and safety company which relocated to the Boston area and has 10 full-time employees and a product line of about 20 products which sell in over 2,500 retail locations including Petco, Costco, LLBean, and REI. As a result of its rapid growth, KURGO ranked 835th overall on Inc.’s 2010 list of the 5000 fastest growing companies in the U.S. On the same list, it was the 46th fastest growing consumer goods company and the fastest growing pet product manufacturer in the nation. (www.inc.com/inc5000/profile/kurgo) The Kurgo product line is for the dog on the move. One of their most successful products is a dog seatbelt harness.
Sam Cochran, an industrial design major from Pratt, is the founder of SMIT (Sustainably-Minded-Interactive-Technology). Sam entered the incubator in 2005 in order to develop his senior thesis: a photovoltaic “ivy”. The concept was a big hit with architects at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, but the prototype didn’t actually work. Over the past five years, Sam led a five-person team which developed a line of modular PV products based on “leaves” that are installed on vertical surfaces. SMIT continues to create innovative products which use high tech, thin film photovoltaic material.
In 2006, Diane Ruengsorn, a graduate of the Design Management program at Pratt, envisioned a company that could produce beautifully designed, sustainably manufactured and affordable home products. She joined the Incubator and worked with interns from the industrial design program to create a home product line that was functional, beautiful and sustainable. One series of wood products, available internationally, uses mahogany scrap from a local window fabricator in Brooklyn. Virgin material that was being discarded is now diverted from the waste stream and fashioned into elegant products for the home. Her products are available nationwide and available through MOMA’s online catalog.
Our most recent group of six start-ups accepted into the incubator include two fashion design companies – TwentyTen and Eko-lab, along with Pliant Technologies– which is working on new forms of energy captured from slow moving water, Spectrum Bioenergy – which produces modular, smaller-scale biogas systems, Holstee – an online product and gift shop focused on illuminating and supporting social issues through their products and profits, and BioLite Stove, a highly efficient cooking stove that produces electricity.
The Incubator’s motto is, “Come in with an idea; leave with a business.”
Each start-up is given office/workspace at the Incubator’s 5,500 square foot, open loft in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Incubees become part of a supportive community structure and have access to Pratt resources. The Incubator’s extensive mentorship network is available to each business, and start-ups are assigned a series of mentors who evaluate and guide each start-up through five stages: Business Plan Development, Ethics and Values, Operations and Sourcing, Product Design and Development, and Finance. The average expected time frame for a start-up is two years. Every six months, start-ups are evaluated on three criteria: progress, participation and potential. Because our start-ups are so different from each other, progress is industry-dependent. For example, a high-tech, highly engineered product may take longer to incubate into a product than a low-tech product with highly accessible supply and manufacturing resources. Participation involves… and is critical to remaining in the incubator – without the community we lose the “liquid network” that is the reason for bringing together a diversely-focused group of creative people. “Liquid networks” are defined brilliantly by Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
“[We need a] chaotic environment where ideas are more likely to come together, where people are likely to have new, interesting, unpredictable collisions – [with] people from different backgrounds… in fact, almost all of the important breakthrough ideas did not happen alone in the lab, under a microscope. They happened at the conference table at the weekly lab meeting, when everybody got together and shared their kind of latest data and findings, oftentimes when people shared the mistakes they were having, the error, the noise in the signal they were discovering. And something about that environment — and I’ve started calling it the “liquid network,” where you have lots of different ideas that are together, different backgrounds, different interests, jostling with each other, bouncing off each other — that environment is, in fact, the environment that leads to innovation.”
Attribution: Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From, from the transcript from his speech at TEDGlobal 2010, filmed Jul 2010, Posted Sept 2010
Daily proximity to other entrepreneurs and twice-a-month group meetings are at the heart of the Incubator’s success. Both allow Incubees to share progress, news and “liquid networks” that help speed progress, deepen values, and ignite “eureka” moments. Knowing that someone else is tracking your progress and cares about your success helps to keep the passion alive through the most difficult moments and decisions. By including a strong internship program, we are able to connect students with entrepreneurs, and our entrepreneurs with the next generation of creative thinkers.
Another aspect of the Pratt Design Incubator is to bring in outside collaborative projects. For example, in May 2009, the Pratt Design Incubator partnered with the home furnishing company “West Elm” to design and produce a line of sustainable home office furniture. The company was exploring a new look that was visually lighter, reasonably priced and met the criteria of the third party certification programs.
Twelve recently graduates from the Pratt Industrial Design program moved into the Incubator’s project space for eight weeks to work collaboratively on the project. The centerpiece of the collection is a simple and highly functional home office desk made of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood. The collection also includes a chair, file unit, wall shelving and accessories set, and table lamp. Of the ten concepts presented, five ultimately went into production.
The designs use eco-friendly materials and processes, including, powder-coated steel (a process that is less toxic than traditional plating), non-toxic glues, and water-based stains was also necessary. The desk lamp uses energy-efficient Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology.
While West Elm gained 5 products that went into production, it also allowed them to explore a new direction in a cost effective way. It linked them directly to a younger consumer base that wasn’t represented in-house. Incubator was able to prove a successful mass-market model that linked design consulting and sustainability. More importantly 12 new designers have learned what it means to develop and produce a sustainable product line. The Incubator has also worked on a variety of projects in the global healthcare and community service sectors.
The Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation set out to create a physical and social space that would nurture a culture of socially and environmentally-driven entrepreneurship grounded in community and collaboration.
The result has been an assembly of ambitious and motivated people with good ideas, and a love for design, for the earth and for society. It creates a place to combine their “want-to” with the “how-to” and to build models that respond to the “need-to” of others – models that become replicable platforms for future entrepreneurs “setting on ready.”
The Incubator encourages both chaos and structure in the attempt to create innovative new businesses.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Possess the desire to create something new
Understand the ‘How-To’ of your design process
Identify and measure the ‘need-to’ create something new and for whom
Establish a network of professionals in your area of expertise
Learn from your professional network
Deliver a desirable, quality final product
About the Author:
Executive Director Center for Sustainable Design Studies
Debera Johnson is Academic Director of Sustainability for Pratt Institute. She founded the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation in 2002 during her tenure as chair of the industrial design program. Under her leadership the Incubator has helped launch 25 design-driven enterprises in four sectors: clean energy, fashion, design, and design consulting. The Incubator provides affordable space, mentorship, and strategic business development within a collaborative community of entrepreneurs. Currently the Incubator hosts 12 businesses and has just opened the Pratt Pop-up! shop in the new Dekalb Market in Brooklyn.
Debera also leads Pratt’s commitment to integrate sustainability into academics in her role as Academic Director of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies. She also coordinates the groundbreaking Partnership for Academic Leadership in Sustainability, a cohort of educators that represent 33 independent art and design colleges across North America. PALS fellows are actively collaborating to advance sustainability in art and design education by creating events, exhibits, and processes that share and leverage their collective resources.
Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From, from the transcript from his speech at TEDGlobal 2010, filmed Jul 2010, Posted Sept 2010