(Photo courtesy of Wayne State University)
While looking for a way to plot environmental pollutants while working on his master’s degree in civil engineering at Wayne State University, Anderson developed the world’s first computer mapping technology. He founded Urban Science in 1977 as a way to use that knowledge to help companies measure their performance in the marketplace through data. Today, Detroit-based Urban Science employs around 750 people and provides analysis for nearly every major automotive maker in the world. Anderson recently answered a series of questions for the URC.
Question: The $25 million gift you and your wife recently gave to Wayne State University’s College of Engineering to create the James and Patricia Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute is designed to encourage faculty and students to think of commercial applications for new technologies. What areas of engineering do you think are ripe for commercialization, and what are some of the products you envision might make it to market in the near future through the institute?
Answer: The industry areas that offer the best opportunities for innovation commercialization include healthcare, retail operations, green, connected and safety.
Biomedical engineering has opened a whole new world in medicine. Biomedical engineering is not new, but due to nanotechnology and digitally controlled mechanical devices there are now unlimited opportunities to help people with physical disabilities, such as wounded amputees, as well as delivering medicine throughout the body to find and control diseases.
Industrial and system engineering combined with computer science has access to unlimited opportunity in the exploding digital world we all live in today. Applying sophisticated mathematics to “big data” enables us to identify that small slice of data that not only impacts the outcomes every organization is trying to manage but also can be controlled. This analysis can enable every business to better monitor its health and maximize the probability of a successful business outcome. These products include, but are not limited to, managing outlet sales performance, profitability or customer loyalty.
The computer technology world has a very short half-life and is in frequent need for rebuilding its software to take advantage of the rapidly evolving computer hardware world such as mobile devices.
Q: You were a pioneer in using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) data to help companies determine the best places and density for auto dealerships. Now your company, Urban Science, offers data analysis for a variety of uses. Where do you see the use of GIS data heading next?
A: GIS data applies to the distribution of any product that needs to be at the right place at the right time in order to meet market demand while storing the inventory the least amount of time.
Q: How did launching a technology company in the 1960s before everyone was using the Internet and creating apps differ from today’s tech innovations?
A: Today’s world is moving at warp speed in contrast to the world of the 1960s. What took hours to do in the ‘60s using a state-of-the-art computer takes milliseconds today. Our first computer-drawn map in 1977 took 16 hours on a pen plotter. Today, that product takes two seconds, and we are working on cutting that in half.
In addition to the time required to produce a computer-generated product, the Internet has rapidly reduced the time to distribute the product anywhere in the world, practically instantly. This enables a small company anywhere in the world to meet global demand throughout the world, which is something we only dreamt about in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Q: What are the positive ways you think tech innovations are affecting society?
A: Technology innovation has increased customer convenience and competition, enabling businesses of any size to be more efficient and making it much easier for entrepreneurs to start a business and look big.
Q: What are some of the innovations you think we can expect to see in our increasingly digital world, and which ones are you most eager to see?
A: The innovation I’m most excited about is in the medical field, from faster diagnosis of disease, to rapid advancements in electro-mechanical body parts such as arms, legs and hands, to remote diagnosis of your physical well-being. In addition, consumers will be better informed, consumer choices enhanced, and products distributed more efficiently.
Q: In what ways have you mentored students and/or faculty interested in tech transfer and commercialization? What has been your most satisfying mentoring experience?
A: By encouraging them that whatever they can dream, they can do. Engineers are trained to solve problems that haven’t been solved before. Abraham Lincoln said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Engineers can and do invent the future every day.
When a student or faculty has that a-ha moment that tells them I can do this, I can invent a solution to a problem and take that solution to market and make my dreams come true, that’s a great feeling.
Q: Do you think the institute will help draw more venture capital to startup companies at Wayne State University and Michigan in general?
A: Absolutely. I know of at least one venture capital source ready to work with the institute. It’s called Urban Science. I’ve also received several phone calls from other venture capital companies wanting to participate in this great initiative.
Q: What do you think of the way Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan work together as the University Research Corridor, and of the way the URC encourages entrepreneurship?
A: The URC provides a great environment for collaboration by experts in these three universities. This combination of expertise places Michigan in the upper echelon of collaborative ventures in the country. Extending the research to include entrepreneurship will help Michigan maintain and grow its prominence in the country.