P&G calls this "naïve innovation."The reason? Something Matt Doyle, P&G’s director and senior researcher in heath care, calls "naïve innovation": the notion that what 18- to 22-year-olds lack in experience they make up for in creative chutzpa. And with Baby Boomers on track to out-populate all other age groups in just four years, with their global spending power projected to be a whopping $1.5 trillion a year, according to P&G estimates, it actually starts to make sense that the company would tap the youngest and brightest to improve the world of the oldest and richest.
Students are unhindered by familial duties, like children.Besides the detergent project, students have redesigned a hospital gown of breathable cotton-bamboo that drapes with dignity; a system for delivering individually labeled pills by mail — Netflix-like — to Alzheimer’s patients; and a wealth-management program that's free of jargon or confusing data. Some are in commercial development today. Obviously, Live Well didn’t invent the wheel here. Design students have been contributing to industry for years, and the trade-offs are obvious: Students get to take a stab at a real-life problem that could go commercial, universities expand the kind of training they can offer students, and companies get a fresh take on internal problems for a relatively small price (more on this later). But Live Well takes things a step further. The students in its studio classes come from a range of undergrad degree programs. Architects, fashion designers, engineers, and finance majors might be lumped together around a single project. Similarly, faculty from UC’s assorted colleges collaborate to teach the same class. Craig Vogel, executive director of Live Well, says this kind of cross-pollination is essential to training students for the careers of tomorrow. "The complexity of contemporary problems means that one discipline can’t solve them," he says. "Most companies today that are having success are working very effectively across areas of expertise." Live Well’s approach is thusly a double whammy for corporate giants like P&G. In effect, the companies get the "naïve innovation" they crave, but in a setting that more or less replicates the product-development process of the working world. They also get plenty of cheap labor. Live Well’s funding mechanism is similar to that of other university-affiliated innovation groups, like the MIT Media Lab, in that it relies on corporate partnerships. A company sponsors a class for $70,000 to $100,000 a semester and pays a membership fee of $50,000 annually for two years. The kicker? It keeps the intellectual property. "That was important," says Jeff Weemdan, P&G’s vice president for global business development. "Negotiation over payments gets in the way of a free-flow of information." (P&G got Live Well off the ground three years ago with a six-figure investment that the collaborative is paying back.) At the end of the day, the companies pay for, and own, the work. Of course what they’re shelling out is chump change relative to their multi-billion R&D budgets, which has us wondering if one of the primary draws of "naïve innovation" is a business model that is anything but naïve.