From Research to Innovation

An interview with Technoport 2016 speaker and NTNU design thinker Martin Steinert.

Martin Steinert, PhD, is a professor with the department of Engineering Designs and Materials at NTNU. He kindly agreed to talk to us in Technoport at his office in NTNU Gløshaugen.

Dr. Steinert was previously with Stanford in California, and has a wide array of interests. These include fuzzy front end of new product development and design, optimizing the intersection of engineering design thinking and new product development. In addition he has an interest in technology and innovation management issues with special interest in disruptive technologies, their socio-economic implications, and their underlying industry dynamics such as adoption and diffusion, as well as focusing on multidisciplinary research.

The interview was conducted by Roar Mygland:

Roar: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me Dr. Steinert. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about yourself and what you do here at NTNU?

Martin: To sum it up I came here two years and eight months ago from the West coast of the US, where I was working at Stanford. Now you might ask why I would leave sunny California for cold and rainy Trondheim, and the answer is quite simple; The university offered me a wonderful position and opportunity to change a lot in terms of mechanical engineering, prototyping and product development, which gave me a larger leverage than I could ever have dreamed of having at Stanford. Furthermore, the environment here is also very supportive and open-minded, which allowed me to adapt a lot of the west coast development techniques to Norway.

Roar: At Technoport you will be holding a session on how to extract more innovation from research with Florian Schneider, could you tell me more about that?

Martin: One of my key research interests is how to do radical innovation, and I think that most of the work I do at NTNU is actually tech-push, we are doing a lot of really cool stuff, building some nice prototypes, but we do not always know exactly how to make a business out of them, and I think it is a question of how to do this better, and not just listen to what the consumer has to say.

Roar: So you prefer to tell the consumer what they want?

Martin: The best thing to do is to build various prototypes and to see how the consumer reacts. You should never ask unless you wish to do an incremental innovation, because the consumer cannot ask for something they do not know what is. Florian and I have this ongoing discussion on what we can learn from artists, and how art and engineering are related in the early phase of innovation. This is because artists are creating a lot of things without necessarily having the buyer dictate what they want, so that is something we try to implement from art, along with rapid prototyping and fast iterations. One such concept we have taken from art is to create something, just for the sake of creation, and not thinking that whatever you create will be the final ultimate version of your idea, which also goes back to how you can then see people's reaction to various prototypes. Also, in order to do this you need a certain arrogance and confidence in your technology and techniques.

Roar: How has it been working with Florian Schneider, given your very different backgrounds?

Martin: It has been a very good experience, and we have actually worked together before in the US on a joint program between mechanical engineering and the fine arts. We had a group composed of engineering and art students, evenly distributed, and as you might imagine, there were quite a few conflicts that arose. This was obviously due to the different mindsets, philosophies and cultures between the two student groups, but at the same time there was a lot of constructive dialogue going on, and I think both groups grew from the experience.

Roar: Are these types of projects something you find easier to do in the US?

Martin: Well, I think the biggest issue with regards to NTNU is that we have all the skills, insights and knowledge that you can think of, but they are located in different buildings and different parts of the city, and you generally cannot access them. It is primarily a question of knowing the right people, so it is a very personal thing. At Stanford you would more often run into colleagues, have chance encounters in the hallways, and if I had a psychology question, I would just head over to that department and say “Hey, I have a question!”, which just does not happen in the same way here.

That is not to say that it does not happen, but it is based on personal effort. At Stanford I would have colleagues drop by my office or attend another professor’s lecture just for fun, those things do not really happen here in Norway.

Roar: Do you feel that NTNU manages to get innovation from its research?

Martin: Yes, I think so. We have companies that are interested, we have startups, and we are doing really good projects here. My primary focus is on research, so I have a clear hierarchy with research first, teaching second, and companies placed third. I think that is an important focus, since at the end of the day, we are a university.

Roar: Do you think the innovation scene at NTNU and Trondheim can have a global impact, and what might that impact be?

Martin: This is really a two-part question. First, does all innovation need the scalability thing you look for in Silicon Valley? Do all ideas need to be unicorns? I do not know how many unicorns we can have in the world, and I think there is a natural limit on that. I would say you are doing really good if you manage to create innovation that has a big impact and is stable, even if it is on a smaller scale or in a local context. Having said this, there are a lot of really great ideas here in Trondheim that could have a breakthrough. We have really great electronics, and some really awesome codes. We do have some things that are definitely world class, a good example of this is Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). 

Roar: So you feel the focus should be on what might be impactful, rather than what might make it big?

Martin: Correct. Often when I meet venture capitalists they say they want a Silicon Valley style, globally scalable idea, and I think that might be the wrong approach. We have a lot of great business concepts and startups here, with a good potential for high growth and a super-safe return of investment, and I do not see the need for doing this Google-thing, on a grand scale, as that might very easily push it into an app-centric world, where Trondheim does not necessarily have a competitive advantage. Instead the focus should perhaps be on the strengths, such as extreme environments due to Trondheim’s geographical location.

Roar: Do you feel art and innovation have a strong relationship with one another?

Martin: There is something funny, which I feel I am still missing, and that Florian and I are trying to build. The idea that it is not just about just doing your homework, your projects or your other student activities, but that you should also do your art, just for fun. Do your building and prototyping. While I was at Stanford I had a PhD-student whom built a string-quartet, which was basically just four robots and moving strings controlled by an electrode. It did not really sound like music, but it was fun, just because.

Roar: Do you feel those sort of activities are lacking at NTNU?

Martin: Yes, they are a bit lacking. I do not think it is because of the students, but because the university and its infrastructure does not really allow it. The workshops are closed off, as are the materials and tools. I think that is sad, because I have observed in my time here that the Norwegians love to tinker, they love to build, and I wish they had more opportunities to do so. It would also lead to more learning and innovation, and I see many of my own students have these small projects back at home.

Right now we have a company producing a world class radar system, called Novelda at TrollLabs. Florian and I just arranged a couple of art students, and we are now trying to build a sculpture, which will be a living experience sculpture where people can experience radar, ultra-low band radar.

Roar: How does it work?

Martin: The idea is that you can physically walk into a radar area and get some sort of audio-visual or tactile feedback on what radar can actually do. Now you might ask why would we create it? The answer is simple; because we can, because it is fun!

Roar: Do you think that perhaps because of your background and your time at Stanford, that it gives the students an edge in that sense?

Martin: It really does, and it is well reflected in the lab, TrollLabs.

Technoport would like to thank Professor Steinert for his time, and for satisfying our curiosities regarding how art and engineering might work together.


Photo: DNA Lab

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