Sniffing out business opportunities

Aug 8, 2008

Innovation and new opportunities - the Department of Business at Kettering University recently welcomed entrepreneur Art DeMonte, implemented a new minor and is encouraging students to take BUSN-572 Innovation and New Ventures.

Skunk Works. Sound familiar? Probably not. Most readers have no idea what this phrase means.

But in 1943 during the height of World War II, Skunk Works was an organization within Lockheed Aircraft Corp., a manufacturer of war aircraft. Skunk Works was formed 1943 following a meeting with company officials and representatives from the Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force. Why? Because of the German fighter jet threat over war-torn Europe, Lockheed had a chance to develop an airframe around a powerful jet engine called the British Goblin.

A month after this meeting, a young Lockheed engineer named Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson (who gave the moniker Skunk Works to his internal intrapreneurial organization) and other engineers submitted the initial XP-80 proposal to ATSC and two days later they received word to move on the project. Johnson’s team had funding from Lockheed, complete autonomy and a deadline of 150 days to develop a new jet engine fighter under extreme security. The result: delivery of a new, highly innovative jet fighter seven days earlier than expected and a chance for the allies to bring the war to a close.

Skunk Works is an example of intrapreneurship—the practice of applying entrepreneurial skills and approaches within an established organization by employees who basically operate within this framework like entrepreneurs.

So how does this concept apply to Kettering University?

Since 2006, Dr. Massoud Tavakoli, professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME), Dr. Andy Borchers, associate professor of Business and Information Systems and interim dept. head, and Dr. Bill Riffe, professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, have worked to develop entrepreneurship opportunities and academic programming at Kettering. In 2006 and again in 2007, the team of professors received a grant in each year for $50,000 from the Kern Family Foundation through the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN), which supported the development of an introductory class called BUSN—572 Innovation and New Ventures, and the Kettering Entrepreneur Society (

This student-lead organization sponsors business plan competitions, provides support services and other activities in an effort to promote an entrepreneurial culture at Kettering based on innovation. Additionally, KES helped spawn several new student-owned businesses based in Flint. For the State of Michigan and City of Flint, which currently has an unemployment rate of more than nine percent, new, innovative businesses are necessary to insure the economic potential and outlook of this part of the country.

Today, entrepreneurship studies at Kettering also focus on intrapreneurship, which helps provide students a comprehensive understanding of how innovative ideas are spurred and supported internally by parent companies.

Art DeMonte, who joined Kettering in July as the McDonald Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, is an accomplished entrepreneur who will teach BUSN 572. DeMonte’s background in entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial activities is extensive: he came to Michigan about nine years ago to help launch eChemicals, an internet-enabled chemical distributor in Ann Arbor, helped create new business models at Dow Chemical, and later became the executive director of the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest (GLEQ, The GLEQ operates a statewide business plan competition and is a powerful engine for the formation of new, high-growth companies by encouraging and educating entrepreneurs on the creation, start up and early growth stages of technology businesses in Michigan.  

 “At Kettering, students show great interest in developing new, innovative entrepreneurial opportunities that they can implement in the near-term,” DeMonte said. “While large research universities generate a lot of high potential technology, it often takes many years to commercialize the idea into a business depending on its complexity. But given Kettering’s cooperative education program, students can realistically look to the near future to implement their ideas and build a business, which is a big advantage,” he added.

Riffe, who taught creativity at Kettering for 15 years, became involved in the Kern Family Foundation grant-funded project because he views the establishment of entrepreneurial studies at Kettering not as a luxury but rather as a necessity. Now the group of professors expects to focus on intrapreneurship as yet another way to enhance the cooperative education experience of students and provide a critical resource for cooperative education partners.

“We hope to make entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial studies part of the Kettering educational culture,” he said. “Bringing Art in, increasing our marketing efforts of the KES, BUSN—572 course and its ties to our corporate sponsors, business plan competitions and other resources we’ve developed thanks to the Kern grants make the study of entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial efforts more intriguing to students and to our corporate partners,” he added.

Riffe hopes to promote intrapreneurship to Kettering corporate partners by taking business potentials and transforming them into commercial opportunities. “Because the institution has an exceptional history with cooperative education, Kettering students are uniquely positioned to do this since they’re already part of the corporate partner’s enterprise,” he said.

Riffe titled this activity “patent commercialization,” which involves taking a corporate partner’s unused intellectual property and develop a program to convert it to a saleable product or valuable process. The payoff for corporate partners is two-fold: first, it provides companies access to selected Kettering faculty who work closely with student teams to develop projects to a realistic conclusion; and second, this process provides companies with employees who can use this experience and duplicate it for other projects within a company.

Thus far, student teams have worked on two patents from Delphi. Specifically, the student teams helped the company develop the technical and business plans for each patent. Based on the excitement expressed by Delphi representatives regarding the high-quality efforts of student teams, the company has offered additional patents for students to examine and plan for commercialization.

“This is just another enhancement to our co-op program,” Riffe said. “Eventually, we would like to expand this program to include non-intellectual property projects. The more experience our students obtain through this effort, the more valuable they become as employees to our corporate partners,” he concluded.

Dr. Michael Harris, Kettering’s provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, feels that Kettering is uniquely qualified to respond to important trends in the market place and develop our country’s innovative spirit through the creation of comprehensive academic programming.

"We have worked diligently to develop new academic programs that are current and relevant,” he said. “The creation of entrepreneurship studies and appointment of the McDonald Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship are in fact part of a larger effort to positively impact the culture and quality of our academic experience," he added.

Companies interested in participating in this program may contact Dr. William Riffe at or call (810) 762-7849. For more information on offerings available through the University’s Business Dept. please call (810) 762-7983 or email

Written by Gary J. Erwin