University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Autumn 2011
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Highlights from the seminar series by MME’s Farritor

Shane Farritor, professor of Mechanical & Materials Engineering at UNL, has developed two startup companies and is on UNL’s Innovation Campus Advisory Board. He’s the father of four school-age children and, as if his life was not busy enough, he wants to encourage each of us to be more creative—so he decided to lead free public talks this fall on “How to Innovate.”

Farritor grew up in Ravenna, son of a hardware store owner, then studied engineering at UNL and earned his Masters & Ph.D. at MIT. He joined the UNL faculty in 1998 and now leads the Mechatronics program. This fall he partnered with the College of Engineering and NUtech Ventures, a nonprofit affiliate of UNL that connects academia with the private sector, to teach extra hours in the form of an Innovation Seminar Series, with lunchtime sessions on the UNL campus and evening sessions at NET studios in Lincoln.

At each session, 50 attendees—not always the same faces, but people with a similar light in their eyes—gained concrete, actionable tools they can use to foster innovation in all they do. Session videos can be viewed at NUtech Ventures’ YouTube channel, with excerpts here:

I’m an engineer and I build things. In the past five years I’ve taken things we’ve done in the lab and turned them into startup companies. At the same time, I became interested in how to be more creative. I taught a class in mechanical engineering on innovation and wanted to offer the information more widely.

Seminar #1: We Need Your Gift
inspiration: a book by Brenda Ueland

We start with “We need your gifts” because what inspires you could inspire others and make a difference for the better. I believe each of us can become more creative and that creativity will benefit those around us. You must become aware of this richness in you and come to believe in it. These are things you need to know:

  1. It’s impossible that you have no creative gift.
  2. It is a gift. The only way to make it live and increase is to use it.
  3. You cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.

From If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland

Yes, there are rare geniuses (like the artist Picasso or Steve Jobs) but more commonly there are wonderful gifts produced through hard work and long hours. Everybody has gifts. Your basic gift, plus 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, will lead to mastery. Develop your gift and work at it over time. Your abilities are not fixed. The key is to have a growth mindset.

Seminar #2: Little Bets
inspiration: a book by Peter Sims

You can be more innovative if you make a conscious effort to take little bets. A little bet is an action you take where the outcome is uncertain. In a little bet you keep careful watch for small successes. A little bet can be as simple as walking across the room to a colleague and share an idea or producing a small number of prototypes. The focus of a little bet is to take action to discover what to do.

Seminar #3: Brainstorming & Other Thinkertoys
inspiration: several sources …

To get ideas moving, I like several books: Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko, and A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. Try tools like the Lotus Blossom, a concept by Yasuo Matsumura, which organizes your thinking by highlighting and connecting significant themes. Use these resources to generate new ideas and different approaches.


I also emphasize proper brainstorming. Proper brainstorming requires a concise problem statement, protection from criticism, and the ability to build on crazy ideas. Try to incorporate it into our day-today activities instead of making it a special event done only in a formal session at an off-site retreat in a fancy place.

Seminar #4: Orbiting the Giant Hairball
inspiration: a book by Gordon McKenzie

All organizations have hairball tendencies (paperwork, meetings, endless email, etc.). Use the organization’s mass gravity to orbit the hairball--so you don’t float away, but also don’t get bogged down in that culture. One lesson to learn is the idea that you need to support fragile creativity. When McKenzie worked at Hallmark, people sought him out with their ideas and he famously encouraged them to pursue those ideas (most influences inside the hairball are better at saying no rather than yes).

Where he teaches in Colorado, Jim Collins (author of Good to Great) carries a stopwatch each day to track how he spends his time. He wants to spend half his time on legacy work (with students, not the hairball). That’s important, too: managing your connection to the organization, and managing your own time, to focus on what’s important and how you can be more creative.

Seminar #5: Where Good Ideas Come From
inspiration: a book by Stephen Johnson

Steven Johnson wrote about developing an environment to create good ideas. It studies significant innovations over the past 200 years and outlines common characteristics in their development. To create good ideas you need both a large volume and a diversity of ideas. You also need a method—he calls it a “liquid network”--for different ideas to mix: thoughts from doctors, engineers, artists and teachers should collide and connect.

This has special implications for UNL as we build Innovation Campus: a place where industry, entrepreneurs, scientists and designers can get together to create new solutions.

Seminar #6: What Are You Talking About?
inspiration: a book by David Schwartz

Communicating ideas is a critical step in the process of innovation. The importance of this step cannot be overstated. This step is often where both business people and technical people fall short. A clear, concise description is at the core of convincing others to support your idea.

The first step in good communication is to be clear. Too often a presentation or report fails to place the idea in a global context and too quickly moves into muddy details. Once your idea is clear, there are attributes that will make your idea more memorable or “sticky.” Sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and told as a story—these are also qualities I recommend for giving a good investor pitch.

Attendees ask: How can we make innovation a bigger part of education?

MIT changed my life that wayat MIT there are lots of people who say, “Let’s go build a rocket” (and they do). Nebraska’s special, too: we get those smart farm kids who like to figure stuff out, and the feeling in Nebraska is very open and free here. There’s a strong sense of untapped talent and potential magic in the things we can conjure here. We need to augment the education we provide with creativity and execution; at Nebraska Engineering we’re working now on curriculum in entrepreneurship. I believe the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates is in a high school in Nebraska right now. We need to create an environment where that person can prosper and take off.

About Farritor’s companies

Virtual Incision Corporation is developing and commercializing inexpensive, remotely operated, in vivo, miniature robotic surgical tools and camera systems to operate within the abdominal cavity. These remotely controlled robots can be inserted through a single tiny incision to perform minimally invasive surgeries, significantly reducing pain and recovery times for patients. Virtual Incision grew from collaboration between Dmitry Oleynikov, a University of Nebraska Medical Center surgeon interested in improving surgery practices, and Farritor, a UNL professor of mechanical and materials with expertise in designing robots. They began developing mini-robots and testing them in animal models. Their exciting research led to development of a Nebraska-based spin-off company to commercialize and produce these novel devices.

Mrail was developed from research by Farritor and Richard Arnold with funding from the Federal Railroad Administration. The research resulted in technology that measures track stiffness and integrity. Nebraska Angels, a venture capital group that invested in Mrail, cited the startup’s potential to become a viable business and to develop more patented technologies.


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