Why Innovation Needs Academia

Maura McCarthy, Blu Homes co-founder, blogs about the role that academia played in the creation of Blu Homes. Originally published in Inc. on January 24, 2012.

It’s in style to dismiss business school, and higher education in general, as unnecessary. But our company wouldn’t exist without it. Here’s why. 

Fifteen years ago my co-founder and our president, Bill Haney, wrote an article called “The Power of Invention,” which discussed the core and enduring American spirit of innovation. He also posited that our innovative spirit is inextricably linked to our country’s higher education system.

Of course, that was back before business school fell out of vogue and dropping out of Harvard was a pre-requisite to becoming a tech-baron. Let’s face it, higher education may or may not be worth the personal investment. But we certainly came up with some intriguing ways to put it to work for our business.

As Bill wrote: “if you looked at the vast history of the United States…the key in building products and companies of value [is] connected inherently to our fundamental American values around education…The wealth of technology that is driven by government, university and nonprofit laboratories throughout our country is unique and staggering.”  

We really believe in American investment in this kind of innovation and in the early days at Blu, we found ourselves searching for a competitive, tech-oriented basis on which to build a firm that would revolutionize a backward, bankrupt, and environmentally detrimental homebuilding industry. So, we transformed Bill’s words into action, and turned to some of America’s greatest learning institutions to help us establish the foundation for our company—and the unique building-technology that is crucial to its success.

Our first stops were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rhode Island School of Design, where, among other things, Blu sponsored two years of seminars. There, we were able to draw on the invaluable brainpower and raw enthusiasm of graduate students and professors in architecture, industrial design, computer science, logistics, and interior architecture.  

We started with a review of the history of housing in the United States, which lead us to ask—and try to answer—some very big questions.

Why had industrial housing succeeded in Western Europe, but not the United States? How was Toyota able to apply its intelligence in car making to its precision-built homes in Japan?  And most importantly, how and why had home building in the United States become such an over-bloated, low-tech, energy sucking, and consumer-unfriendly industry?

Students and professors got down to business and contributed some of the leading thinking on combining architecture and computer science.  And, because these institutions attract talent from around the world, this “R&D” yielded perspectives that took into account many different global building systems and green building products.  Moreover, doing R&D this way is at a relatively fixed cost, and fixed timeline –you get to see results the end of each semester!

Through this research—and subsequent research from University of Michigan professors and students—we have re-imagined homebuilding and built a new paradigm for the entire industry:

We also researched what consumers felt were lacking in homes—namely, a connectedness to nature, lower energy bills, long-term durability, and integration of technology—and used that information to model passive solar, renewable energy, air exchange systems, and green fixtures that would make our homes beautiful, healthy, and 50 to 70 percent less expensive to operate. In other words, we’re letting people live greener, more beautiful lives—and save money.

We founded Blu on the principle of revolutionizing a very sick industry. We are still working hard to achieve our goal. Staying connected to and continuing to learn from America’s great academic institutions is still very much a part of our strategy.

And why not? Students and professors alike are excited and inspired to contribute to something “real,” and we are glad to have such a variety of perspectives, yielding high-quality, thorough research. 

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