Christine LaFave Grace and Manas Mehandru, COO of mHUB, discuss how the innovation center connects Midwestern manufacturers with right talent to make high-quality products more efficiently.
Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. I’m Amanda Del Buono. Today, Christine LaFave Grace speaks with Manas Mehandru, COO of mHUB, a Chicago-based innovation center. In their discussion, they talk about how mHUB fosters connections between local manufacturers, university researchers and entrepreneurs, and how it helps connect manufacturers with research and development talent.
Here’s their interview.
Christine LaFace Grace: The focus of many of our conversations here on Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce is on how manufacturers can build their talent pipeline, whether that’s through apprenticeships or partnerships with local schools or training organizations to meet specific skills demands. But what about when there’s a need for a highly specialized type of skill or capabilities that a manufacturing organization just doesn’t have in house?
Manas Mehandru is COO of mHUB, a Chicago-based innovation center focused on physical product development and manufacturing. Launched in 2016, mHUB exists to foster connections between local manufacturers, university researchers and Chicago’s entrepreneurial community of makers and technologists. Among mHUB’s many initiatives is a sort of matchmaking program for manufacturing, to connect Midwestern manufacturing companies with R&D talent—SMEs, specialists and entrepreneurs who can bring fresh perspective to a specific production challenge that a manufacturer is facing and help the manufacturer innovate the way to a solution.
Manas, you’re an electrical engineer by training—we think of this idea of necessity being the mother of invention, what was the necessity identified within industry that led to the creation of this initiative?
Manas Mehandru: We certainly engaged the industry to hear all of the opportunities that were out there. The one thing that stood out was that there wasn’t a shortage of opportunities for them to develop ideas, develop concepts and innovate; the challenge was really taking that next step, investing in R&D and in the right people to solve the right problems. What we really did and what we focused in on was how can we leverage the pool of talents that exists at mHUB to really support some of that and really turn some of those opportunities into products that could be marketed and then grow.
CLG: Tell me a little about how this program is structured. If I’m a manufacturer coming in, how can I take advantage of this kind of opportunity?
MM: Good question. A lot of manufacturers have very specific needs, as you mentioned before. They may need someone to really focus on fluid dynamics or someone who’s really well-informed in how to develop a connected device or turn something into a 5G-type of product, and they may need that for one deviation of a product that already exists. So they can come to us, and we’ve got really the background with all of our members very well organized so we can very quickly connect them to the right resource, the right talent, that can solve their specific need. Often they approach us; they come to us with a problem statement or an opportunity statement; we’ll work together and say, “Hey, you need an electrical engineer; you need maybe a mechanical engineer who’s really strong in fluid dynamics.” We’ll create that connection and help them take their concept to the next stage.
CLG: How do individual contractors connect with you? Where, OK, I’m an electrical engineer, or I have experience, knowledge and background to help companies with a 5G initiative—how do I connect with mHUB to be able to connect with companies that might be able to utilize my talents?
MM: Most of our members are entrepreneurs, and being an entrepreneur is really the most vulnerable position to be in. You’re going out there without any real income potentially early on, and you’re betting on yourself; you’re betting on your talent. And as scary as that can be, the opportunity and the potential is incredibly high. But the runway is often short. For a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s a way for them to hedge their risk a little bit. They’re working on their own product; they’ve got these skills, and by being in our contractor pool, they say, “Hey, I’ve got these skills, and if a project comes up where I can be of service, I’d be happy to be consulted with.” And so for many of them, often they’re working on their own product, often strapped for cash. So if they have the opportunity to work on a side project for a week or two, it’s a great opportunity to get a little safety net for them to increase their runway and also make them a little more comfortable in their day to day.
CLG: For all of the “side hustles” that we think of, we don’t tend to think of manufacturing side hustles.
MM: Right? That’s very true, and the other side of this is you also gain some perspective from going through these projects as well. You get a little domain experience in whatever the industry may be, and you learn from everyone’s experiences. You get a little perspective and you build some connections within the community. I think that’s a big part of this. Historically, entrepreneurs operate in one world, in a very different environment than industry, whether it’s large corporates or small to medium manufacturers. There are strengths on both sides and weaknesses on both sides, but getting those two groups together to digitally appreciate what each can bring to the table has been rewarding for both sides, from what we’ve seen
CLG: The entrepreneurial mindset, you’re open to some different ideas and approaches, different ways of doing things; that’s what innovation is all about. For longtime players in industry, do you see a growing appetite for or awareness of the opportunity to engage talent in different ways, or even in kind of a gig environment like this?
MM: I do. Part of it is funds, I would say. If you’re a large corporate, it doesn’t take a lot of money to engage and test something out. Make no mistake, if you’re going to be innovative, there’s risk involved, right? You’re betting on something that may or may not be likely to happen, but if it happens, this small bet can pay off big. To be able to step in (with) smaller engagements and test the waters a little bit is incredibly exciting for corporates. The risk is relatively small—they’re not putting a million dollars down; often our projects start off with just $10,000 or even less. It’s just, “Let’s take a look at this and see what can be built.” You get some ideation sessions and build some real excitement of, “Hey, there’s something here.” And so while I don’t know that any manufacturer would jump in and do all of their innovation, all of their work this way, being able to test the water and be innovative while still maintaining your core I think is really interesting for both sides.
CLG: Do you have any favorite stories of connections that have been made through mHUB in this way?
MM: I’ve got a couple—I’d say there has been one product in particular where a manufacturer came to us where they had a challenge that they were hearing from their end customer, largely related to quality of the output. They had been taking a look and staring at this thing for a long time and just couldn’t come up with something that would solve their problem. Fairly quickly, the group that they were working with had a pretty innovative solution that was outside the box—relatively simple, on its surface—but within three weeks were able to deliver something that made their product faster, more consistent, improve the quality of the output really inexpensively. In three weeks they had a working prototype. They basically took the manufacturer’s product, adapted it with this new technology, added an algorithm, put some software behind it as well as some software to not only make this product faster but it made the quality significantly better and differentiated their product tremendously. I used to say that sometimes you can’t smell the soup from within the pot—sometimes when you’ve been working with an organization for so long, you can’t see the opportunities, so bring in some fresh eyes to the table, especially ones with a different skill set, a different knowledge base, can really change your perspective on things and change the way you view a product.
CLG: To produce an a-ha moment like that, how invigorating must that be for the entire staff?
MM: Certainly the entrepreneurs feel a tremendous out of pride in, hey, they just took a product that’s existed for 50 years and made it twice as fast and significantly higher quality in a matter of a few months.
Entrepreneurs also know the struggle of innovating. They may have a good product, but getting to market and understanding your customers and what their needs are often is a challenge. So having a manufacturer come to you and say, “Hey, this is what we’re trying to do,” and then they work together and appreciate wow the scale of this and the sales channels that you have and that you have this domain knowledge and this opportunity was there, this market position is incredible and has been built, often, over decades. How do you market this; how do you sell this; how are you going to scale this solution? Often the manufacturers know very clearly how they’re going to do this.
CLG: Changing manufacturing roles demand changing approaches to workforce development and sourcing talent? What are some key things that manufacturers should keep in mind in planning strategically to meet this evolving workforce and skilled-talent needs?
MM: Workforce at its core will continue to evolve. It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of medium-skilled to highly skilled labor in the manufacturing sector, certainly with a lot (of individuals) approaching retirement. I think what’s important is to understand really where your products are going, where your business is going. If you have an intention to invest in R&D, to invest in your growth, you’ll need (understanding of) your current workforce needs and you’ll need a little bit of what will it look like five years from now to adapt to the world that we’re in.
CLG: That’s great. Well Manas, thank you again so much for joining me today. Thanks for listening in. For Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce, I’m Christine LaFave Grace. Thank you and have a great rest of your day.
AD: That was Christine’s interview with Manas Mehandru. Check back in two weeks for the next episode of Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. Have a great day.