Manas Mehandru is COO of mHUB, a Chicago-based innovation center focused on physical product development and manufacturing. Launched in 2016, mHUB strives to foster connections between local manufacturers, researchers and Chicago’s entrepreneurial community. Among mHUB’s many initiatives is a sort of matchmaking program for manufacturing, to connect Midwestern 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 innovate the way to a workable, cost-effective solution.
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PS: You’re an electrical engineer by training. We think of the idea of necessity being the mother of invention–what was the necessity identified that led to the creation of this initiative?
MM: 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 support some of that and turn some of those opportunities into products that could be marketed and then grow.
PS: How is this program structured? How does a manufacturer take advantage of this kind of opportunity?
MM: Good question. A lot of manufacturers have very specific needs. 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 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 come to us with a problem statement or an opportunity statement; we’ll work together and say, “Hey, 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.
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, 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.” 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.
PS: 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. You get a little domain experience in whatever the industry may be, and you build some connections within the community. Historically, entrepreneurs operate in one world, in a very different environment than industry, whether it’s large corporations or small to medium manufacturers. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides, but getting those two groups together to appreciate what each can bring to the table has been rewarding for both sides.
PS: For longtime players in industry, do you see a growing appetite for engaging 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. 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.” Being able to test the water and be innovative while maintaining your core I think is interesting for both sides.