Lehigh University
Lehigh University


A commitment to innovation

Todd Watkins

A snapshot from Todd Watkins’ 2006 trip to Honduras, the second poorest country in Central America, shows local business hopefuls around a small kitchen table as a loan officer congratulates them: Their loan applications were approved.

The loan officer works for a microfinance firm, which gives small loans to the working poor who hope to establish or expand their own businesses. Loan recipients, primarily women, have an unusually high pay back rate: about 98 percent.

The loan officer holds a large stack of papers. Before the loan recipients can receive a loan, they must complete pages of paperwork by hand, which will be re-entered for the microfinance firms and their investors. Each step in the chain involves time-consuming labor, increasing transaction costs.

These high transaction costs presented a teaching opportunity to Watkins, associate professor of economics in the College of Business and Economics. In June 2006, he and seven students representing three colleges and many majors—including computer science and business, economics, international relations, and Spanish—spent 10 days studying the microfinance industry in Honduras. They designed two prototypes, including a Pocket PC, to collect, record, and transmit data electronically, reducing transaction costs. He has since traveled to Peru on microfinance trips twice in 2008 and the next microfinance trip will be to Ghana, Africa in the summer of 2009.

In addition, Watkins is heavily involved in the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program and other entrepreneurial efforts. Watkins coordinated Lehigh’s inaugural Innovation Roadmapping Workshop, an international conference on developing microfinance-oriented management systems. The workshop—held in June, 2008—attracted microfinance representatives from Kenya, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Peru to Lehigh’s campus.

The “Lehigh in Honduras” program combines the Integrated Product Development (IPD) program and the Martindale Scholars, two programs Watkins advises. Like the IPD program, students developed new products for real businesses, but, similar to Martindale Scholars, they traveled to another country for research.

Watkins’ work with IPD led to him being named the co-chair of Lehigh’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and for the National Academies to recruit him for a team of 12 experts assigned to study the innovation management practices in NASA Aeronautics.

The team's original mission was to identify how management changes can better promote innovation. "I felt kind of odd, to tell you the truth, to be on a panel that was going to recommend—to what has historically been one of the most innovative organizations—how to be more innovative," Watkins says.

Quickly, the committee realized that NASA Aeronautics' barrier to improving innovation resulted not from management practices but from a lack of funding. "Because aeronautics has become lost in the shadows of NASA's space activities, the mission to serve national research needs in aeronautics was far too large, given the resources available to them," Watkins says.

After two years of research, Watkins and two colleagues published a summary of key findings in "Glide Path to Irrelevance," an article printed in the National Academies' Fall 2006 Issues in Science and Technology.

Before working with NASA, Watkins proved that he can spark innovation on campus when he and several other faculty members developed the Ventures program, which awarded grants to Lehigh faculty who created "hands-on, inquiry-based" courses and programs. The grants encouraged professors in every department to provide students with the opportunity to produce original work appropriate to their majors and interests.

"These hands-on projects really generate more substantive, in my view, long-term learning than the faculty can generate on their own," Watkins says.

The program, which began in 1999 and lasted until 2001, was a success. "It's had a demonstrable effect on changing the institution and the way things are taught," he says. Approximately 40 new courses and 89 faculty members received some $400,000 in grants. Programs funded include Production and Marketing of Sound Recordings, a geologic field research study program in the Rocky Mountains, Design Arts labs, a sociology class on consumer society, and a democracy workshop.

The new programs helped to ensure that hands-on courses are available to all Lehigh students.

The inquiry-based programs may teach students to develop their own work, but they may also influence a professor's choice of study.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Thursday, January 15, 2009

share this story: