For $125,000, Dell could put a product designer on its payroll for a year, or maybe two given how dreadful the job market is these days. The PC maker is spending that sum a different way, however, and it may end up getting more for its money, based on the experience of Cobra Electronics. Dell is paying $125,000 to sponsor a five-way competition at an unusual program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I got a peek into this nine-month program while touring the university’s Innovation Center, where I bumped into Albert Page, who heads the managerial studies department at UIC’s College of Business Administration. Here’s what he told me in a shop filled with lathes, work tables, saws, and a rapid-prototyping machine that was making a replica of a woven product sample. Joseph Cherian, a marketing professor in the business college, later filled in some blanks.

Here are the basics: Over the course of both semesters of the 2009-10 school year, 34 students in UIC’s Interdisciplinary Product Development program will be split into five teams, each assigned to come up with a new product for Dell. They meet formally once a week, though in truth they’ll probably average 10 hours a week on their assignment. The effort is truly interdisciplinary: 13 of the students are final-year undergrads in industrial design, 12 are engineering seniors, and 9 are biz school grad students. The cohorts are spread among the teams as equally as possible.

“They’re not quite professionals,” notes Cherian. “But they will be in the workforce in a year or two. So they’re neo-professionals.”

(A second group of 27 students from the three colleges is working on health-care for a consortium of sponsors.)

By the end of the fall semester, each team is expected to have one product idea, culled from perhaps 100 concepts after market research, focus groups, consultation with their professors, and periodic reviews by a squad from Dell. By the end of the spring semester, each of these ideas is supposed to be honed into a fully formed product, complete with prototypes and marketing plans.

Add up all the students’ time, and Dell is getting more than 10,000 man-hours for its money—or $12.50 an hour. What’s more, it will get full rights to any intellectual property that comes from the student proposals.

In 2008-09, one section of Interdisciplinary Product Design students worked under a $125,000 grant from Motorola. (A prototype of a flip-phone was left behind on a work table in the Innovation Center.) The second section was assigned to Cobra Electronics; the Chicago-based company, best known for radar detectors and radios, paid $75,000 to have students come up with answers to five separate challenges.

Sally Washlow, Cobra’s vice-president of product development and marketing, tells me that Cobra is now working with one of the students on patenting a product that came out of this challenge: a line that would take the company into a new market. She says she can’t say more about the product until the rights are secured.

But she says unequivocally that Cobra would not have hit on this new business by itself. “The idea is not too far out, but we would not have come up with it here because everyone is too focused on the here and now. We don’t have time to pause and ask, What’s the game-changer here? This is a fresh approach.”

So was it worth $75,000? “You definitely get your money’s worth.”

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