The Lean Canvas for Invention: A team-based framework for research development, mentoring and career readiness and innovation at the University of Utah

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommend that a science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate education be in place to respond to workforce needs, connect theory to practice, utilize project-based learning, promote the exploration of diverse career paths and develop core competencies and transferable professional skills. The U.S. National Science Foundation's Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) program grant, awarded to the University of Utah electrical and computer engineering program, helps the university respond to these recommendations, as described below by principal investigator Cynthia Furse and her colleagues, Donna Ziegenfuss and Arabella Bhutto.

Their project has developed Lean Canvas for Invention (LCI), a web-based course that helps graduate students, researchers and inventors turn ideas into inventions using a systematic approach to research and invention development. This approach emphasizes problem identification through traditional journal literature, patents and market analysis. The course offers an efficient step-by-step methodology to prepare researchers and innovators in all fields to address their unique challenges, from problem definition to entrepreneurship. Results will help provide a new resource to the education community for training the next generation of STEM scientists and entrepreneurs.


Q: Dr. Furse, what motivated your decision to seek an IGE grant?

A: I have done a fair amount of research and innovation in my career, since I started a small company. My research has led to some improvements that have really made a difference in the field of engineering and the world. When I started the company, we followed a process that's very similar to what's now known as the Lean Canvas for Business. This is the process done through NSF and I-Corps and provides a structured most viable product definition strategy.

LCI starts earlier in the innovation cycle than Lean Canvas for Business. It is a systematic approach that enables inventors and researchers to engage with stakeholders, to gain insights into the requirements of a specific organization or market segment. This process helps in identifying a significant challenge or problem that, once addressed, would benefit not only the community in a particular industry but also have global implications. Unlike the traditional approach of beginning with a patent in hopes of solving a problem, Lean Canvas empowers innovators and researchers to start from the initial definition of the problem and then systematically works towards creating a well-defined and impactful product.


Q: What aspect of your IGE project excites you the most, particularly in terms of its significant contributions to critical research?

A: One of the most exciting aspects of our project is that we developed the LCI course as the predecessor to Lean Canvas for Business. Lean Canvas for Business is the framework that enables the development and validation of business ideas, empowering an inventor to become an innovator. It encompasses the key aspects of a business, including customer segments, value propositions, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partners and cost structure. The Lean Canvas for Business is designed to be a simple and easily understandable tool that can help entrepreneurs quickly identify and validate the key components of their business idea. It helps ensure that a product is commercially viable. But it's "too late" for early-stage research such as what we do at the university. LCI starts earlier, when you are first generating your ideas. It helps define the real-world needs and the novelty of an idea. It helps an inventor define the most valuable problem to solve in their area of interest.


Q: Professional development and preparation for students in your program are key aspects of your IGE project. Can you tell us how your project supports the wider University of Utah student community?

A: As a scientist at the University of Utah, I have witnessed the university's dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit. This spirit is precisely why the introduction of LCI, followed by the Lean Canvas for Business, holds immense relevance and significance. These concepts are not only pertinent but also essential. What is noteworthy is that every student at the University of Utah has access to these courses and associated materials.

In essence, research and development at the university revolve around the pursuit of the most valuable questions and pressing problems. While Lean Canvas for Business typically seeks the development of a minimum viable product, our approach as researchers is to identify and address the most valuable problems to help drive innovation at the highest level.

The career development, mentoring and the networking components of the program further support the program participant's professional growth. We want our students to have a successful career in innovation.


Q: Wonderful! Tell us more about some of the most successful approaches you and your team use in teaching the program and how those approaches have impacted student success.

A: Our graduate course structure incorporates an array of key elements. At least four teaching elements are crucial to the success of our program.

First, students are required to engage with relevant reading materials before each classroom session. This proactive learning approach helps them to grasp the subject matter more deeply and come prepared for in class discussions.

Second, our students have the unique opportunity to gain insights directly from expert panels during class sessions. This exposure to industry leaders, practitioners and seasoned professionals offers a practical dimension to the students' academic journey.

Third, we empower our students with essential academic research tools so that they learn to navigate the intricacies of research, cultivating a skill that is crucial in both academia and industry alike. We provide them with a strong foundation in how to efficiently and effectively search and use both journal and patent databases. Academia typically publishes in journals, but businesses more often publish their work via patents. By including both, students get a much broader view of the technology landscape, as well as learning the legal aspects of innovation and intellectual property. This is an invaluable skill set in today's technological landscape.

Finally, our students are guided to conduct market research in their areas of interest — in particular, interviews with stakeholders and experts, and a review of market and business literature. This hands-on experience further hones their ability to identify opportunities and challenges, positioning them as future leaders and innovators in their respective fields of engineering. In addition, they begin developing their professional network in their field of interest and inevitably gain valuable mentoring suggestions from the professionals they interview. Our academic approach is designed to be both rigorous and practical, ensuring that our students not only acquire theoretical knowledge but also gain the skills and insights necessary to excel as innovators.


Q: It sounds like your students will be well-prepared and armed with skills to continue making a significant impact within the STEM workforce. Beyond this incredible impact, what is your vision for the future of your IGE project? What is next for the team?

A: Our vision for this program is to make the program accessible to aspiring inventors across the country, fostering innovation and research-driven thinking.

We envision the program being offered through both in-person and online modalities. The dual delivery approach is aimed at accommodating diverse learning preferences and geographical locations. This way we can engage students both on our campus and in virtual classrooms, ensuring that knowledge knows no boundaries. We've previously taught synchronously. We will be adding the asynchronous online version of our program in January 2024. The digital format not only provides flexibility but also enhances accessibility, making it convenient for working professionals and individuals from various regions to participate in our program.

Implementing the Lean Canvas structure for other programs here on campus is also a natural step for us. For example, we believe we could implement the Lean Canvas concept for the Professional Master of Science and Technology, which is a multidisciplinary program and includes a professional development course.

Similarly, we're enthusiastic about exploring communication and marketing avenues that will enable us to extend the program's reach beyond the University of Utah. Our ambition is to collaborate with other universities interested in adopting and teaching this course. By establishing partnerships and sharing our curriculum we aim to create a network of institutions across the nation dedicated to nurturing the spirit of innovation and invention. Through this collaborative effort, we can empower inventors nationwide. We're committed to breaking down barriers and building bridges to knowledge.

Finally, we are excited to share an additional inspiring prospect. Our vision extends beyond the Lean Canvas program to leverage the potential of its core structure to develop downloadable teaching units that cover a wide array of subjects, both within our university and far beyond. The idea is to create modular teaching units that can be easily accessed and downloaded online. By doing so, we can make high-quality education more equitable, accessible and widespread across the United States but also around the globe. The NSF, the National Institutes of Health and other influential parties are uniting forces to make this dream a reality, and we are taking steps to be part of this exciting endeavor.