Five hundred dollars can buy a lot of pizza for a group of college kids. Then again, how much is a good idea worth to a multibillion dollar corporation?
As part of a contest sponsored by Matrix Fitness, students at Indiana University have been putting their ingenuity to the test, trying to solve a half-dozen of the company's most intractable design problems.
The outcome appears to be a win-win for all involved.
"The students love it," said teacher Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, whose fitness management classes have taken on the Matrix challenge. "I've never seen them work so hard at the end of the semester in my life. They wanted to win."
In late April, 28 juniors and seniors dressed to the nines made PowerPoint presentations to two representatives from Wisconsin-based Matrix Fitness. And, boy, did they have ideas about how to make some traditional exercise equipment more attractive and motivating.
One student group conceived of a machine that combined an overhead lat press and stomach curl, meant to squeeze workouts into a shorter timeframe. Another came up with a stepper that would flatten like an escalator and turn into a treadmill at the push of a button. Then there was the team that designed a more comfortable seat for a rowing machine and added a high-tech monitor to act as virtual coach.
The idea is to inspire innovation, not necessarily real-world answers.
"We don't expect them to become an expert in their topic in a couple of weeks," said Ryann Paszko, one of the judges and a design researcher for Johnson Health Tech North America, the U.S.-based R&D team for Johnson companies. "We have a full-time researcher on staff for that. I want them to be creative and to dig deep on a project. I want to know that they tried."
Shaune Davis, 22, one of four students on the winning team, said he and his group had the daunting challenge of improving on a fitness basic -- the humble free weight.
He said his team rejected as "crazy and too hard to sell" an early notion to create a pulley system that could help someone lifting heavy dumbbells to work out without a spotter.
But after interviews with nearly two dozen people at the campus gym, Davis and his teammates discovered a simpler solution: People sometimes avoided using dumbbells because the grips are awkward and uncomfortable, they found. So the students suggested Matrix design a grip for weights in the 25- to 200-pound range that swiveled. But they didn't stop there: The team went beyond grips and looked into the psychology of color. (Think "red" for passion and strength; "blue" for peace and unity; "yellow" for sunlight and happiness.) They assigned corresponding colors for 2.5- to 25-pound weights based on emotions the colors were said to evoke.
As a kicker, the students thought like business people. Davis, who said this was one of the best classes he took at IU, said his team thought Matrix should use every possible opportunity to market its good name, so they stamped the free weights with the Matrix brand on both sides.
"They had a really difficult topic," said Paszko, the judge and Johnson researcher. "It's a fundamental piece of equipment. To try to improve on a staple like that is really a challenge. I was just blown away by their work."
The idea for the contest came from what Matrix salesman Doug Marquette called "a random discussion … that expanded into something phenomenal."
Marquette and IU teacher Kennedy-Armbruster met at a trade show a year ago and started brainstorming about ways to bring young people's ideas into product development. Taking a page from Indiana's well-regarded Kelly School of Business, where companies such as Target Corp., have sponsored student projects, Kennedy-Armbruster suggested that Matrix come up with a design contest and offer a cash prize.
The idea stuck. Marquette simply dipped into his marketing budget to fund it.
"I didn't really pitch it to anybody," he said, "I just did it."
The partnership seems to have legs, now that it's been used in fall and spring semester classes. Both Marquette and Paszko said they're confident Matrix will continue to underwrite the contest at Indiana, at least through the next school year.
Kennedy-Armbruster, who spent two decades in the business world before becoming a lecturer at the school five years ago, said the contest exposes students to corporate leaders and shows them that there's a business side to the fitness industry.
"Even though many of them say they want to be personal trainers, there's really more money to be made on the product end," she said. "It opens their eyes to a whole other world of creating and marketing big equipment lines."
As for Davis, a senior from New Albany, Ind., the experience was unrivaled, and not just because his team took home the greenbacks.
"It was different from any other class," said Davis, who said he hopes to become a police officer and train federal law enforcement agents in physical fitness. "I've never had the opportunity to get real-life job experience like this. It was a lot of work, but it was fun working for the money."
Davis and team members shared the cash, each getting $125, which Davis at least had said he had yet to spend, although his girlfriend he admitted was angling for an engagement ring.
The cash was cool, Davis said, but so was the grade.
"We got an A," he said. "Perfect score."
SNEWS® View: Last year we wrote about a similar contest done by Vision Fitness, another Johnson company, using a design school in Milwaukee. (Click here to read that July 16, 2007, SNEWS® story, "Vision Fitness goes to school to tap into students' minds for fresh ideas.") It was a phenomenal way not only to mine for the kind of ideas that only young and unfettered minds may come up but also to show students opportunities for their work in the fitness industry. Not only does the sponsoring company gain, the students gain, but in fact the broader industry gains. We'd love to see more companies look to regional colleges to sponsor this kind of participation in the industry by college students (let us know if you do). And next time SNEWS® would also like to be a fly on the wall as the students discuss their ideas. Boy, we bet that would be amazing to see what they do not simply dismiss as impossible.