The Innovation Garage program is a year-long immersive project where teams of students work with a faculty mentor, alongside members of the Wond’ry team and a corporate sponsor to develop innovative and disruptive solutions from ideation all the way to prototype, concluding in a summer internship. Accenture, a large technology consulting firm, was the corporate sponsor of two Innovation Garage teams for the 2017-18 academic year. The Innovation Garage kicked off with a launch camp in August, in which the two projects were revealed to the 9 students selected to participate in the program. Each student was staffed to one of two projects: blockchain or retail. The premise of the Innovation Garage was for an interdisciplinary team of students to use the design thinking process to create a novel solution to each of the project’s problem statements. Students, unlike blockchain and retail experts, are not constrained by preconceived notions of how an industry functions – enabling them to challenge industry norms with disruptive ideas.
Team Retail began with four members — Claire Fogarty (Peabody College of Education and Human Development), John Kim (School of Engineering), Kaan Aykac (College of Arts and Science), and myself (School of Engineering). We received an intriguing, yet broad problem statement from Accenture about making retailers more competitive in light of industry disruptors like Amazon. Throughout the first semester, the team conducted extensive market research and identified three potential solutions: inventory management, customer data analytics, and mobile commerce. We found all three of these solutions to be the key differentiators for retailers successfully adapting to the needs and wants of their increasingly digital customers.
Following into the second semester, my team’s customer data analytics platform idea was ‘greenlighted’ and we were connected with a fast fashion apparel retailer looking to go digital. To address the client’s needs, our platform concept evolved into a machine-learning enabled recommendation platform, which would allow the company to turn a non-revenue generating department into a revenue generator.
Accenture executives gave Team Retail the opportunity to continue the work into the summer. The summer team included myself, Kaan Aykac, and a member from the blockchain team, Amy Chen (College of Arts and Science). During the summer internship, the team developed the business case for the platform and prototyped the user interface (UI) after identifying design software during our visit to Accenture’s Innovation Hub and the Operations Studio in Chicago. With the help of a computer science post-doc, Marcelino Rodriguez Cancio, we developed a functioning algorithm that generated relevant product recommendations and successfully integrated the UI and algorithm into a web-based platform.
The internship culminated with a week in L.A. where we were fortunate to engage in working sessions with executives at the Accenture office in El Segundo, as well as at the client’s headquarters. We worked directly with the client to showcase the interface mockup and final web platform. The client recognized the platform’s potential value and expressed a desire to continue discussions around the project. In the final week of our internship, we passed off the product recommendation platform, user guides, and research to an internal Accenture team for future development.
The Innovation Garage program was an unparalleled opportunity to work alongside managing directors and Subject Matter Experts at Accenture on a real-world problem. The feedback we received throughout the project from our Accenture liaisons, Vanderbilt professor, Dave Owen, and the Wond’ry’s program director, Deanna Meador, allowed us to constantly iterate and improve on our idea. Now that my team has concluded a successful internship and a year’s worth of research into the retail industry, we plan to tackle the (R)Tech Global Retail Challenge this fall. The Innovation Garage has been a defining experience of my junior year at Vanderbilt and a stepping stone to many other opportunities. I highly encourage everyone to get involved at the Wond’ry and the exciting programs and resources offered.
Senior, School of Engineering