Eyes on the M-Prize: Students apply for competition

Students+collaborate+on+innovation+initiatives+for+the+challenge.

Photo by Courtesy of Kohler Company

Students collaborate on innovation initiatives for the challenge.

It isn’t everyday that you get the opportunity to pitch your ideas to a panel of judges in a “Shark Tank”-style innovation challenge.

However, that’s exactly what Kohler is doing by collaborating with Marquette for an innovation competition, officially dubbed the “Kohler M-Prize Challenge,” to design kitchen and bathroom amenities with the theme of “Designing for Inclusivity.”

Carmel Ruffolo, associate vice president for corporate engagement, said this opportunity is an exciting one for students, faculty and the Kohler Company alike. 

“The M-Prize was really born through [Marquette’s] 100 year collaboration with Kohler,” Ruffolo said. “Their main aim in this is to involve Marquette students and [help them] understand what Kohler [is] all about. It’s a fun project for the students to think of something like this. Especially for Kohler, that is always top of the mind, the idea of sustainability and stewardship.”

In the spring of 2020, Marquette University, in collaboration with the Kohler Company, hosted “Redo the Loo.” This unique innovation competition was designed in order to encourage students from different disciplines to work together and create a creative solution to a prompt.

In this instance, the prompt was to redesign the bathrooms in Marquette’s on-campus innovation space, the 707 Hub.

While Marquette’s M-Prize Challenge began back in 2020, Kalpa Vithalani, executive director of technology transfer, said that Kohler has had a similar, company-wide challenge for their employees since 2018. Vithalani said this idea was what eventually became the M-Prize challenge.

“[Kohler] has been doing something called the I-Prize challenge since 2018 because they recognize that innovation can come from anywhere,” Vithalani said. “In one of [these] I-Prize projects, in order to continue iterating and developing on it, they needed some help from students. They’re like ‘Hey, if students can help us develop one of our in-house projects, what about brand new ideas?’”

Students who were interested in competing in the M-Prize challenge submitted applications online as individuals until Sept. 26. Following the applications, 30 selected applicants will be split up into six teams and have the opportunity to attend “Innovation Day,” the opening event at the Kohler Company, Sept. 30.

John Knapp, executive director of Innovation Alley, an interdisciplinary leadership initiative on Marquette’s campus which sponsors events in the 707 Hub, said the application process for the M-Prize challenge is intentionally straightforward. 

“The application isn’t designed to be very exclusive,” Knapp said. “We want our passionate students who seek the opportunity to work with peers. We want people that are passionate about the role that inclusivity plays in our society and how we can be inclusive in the way that we design products. It’s an opportunity to grow and develop.”

Despite the commitment required to compete in the competition, John Peterson, an instructor who teaches the Intro to Entrepreneurship course, ENTP 3001, said he recommends students take advantage of the ability to use their creativity outside of classes. 

“One of the things I do is ask students to get out of the classroom and get involved in other things,” Peterson said. “I think these are wonderful opportunities and I absolutely encourage students to get involved.”

Dominic Barry, a sophomore in the College of Engineering, decided to apply for the M-Prize challenge because of his experiences with innovation before college.

“In high school, I was the president of my district’s innovation team which did large-scale, off-the-books problem solving,” Barry said. “[We tackled issues] such as dealing with dangerous roads that the city wasn’t willing to touch, redesigning how tests are administered at our school and also consulting for General Mills on products and how to work with [the] new generation.”

Barry said one of the reasons he loves innovation is because of the ability to work with people from different perspectives toward a common goal. 

“Innovation is a place where people from different backgrounds can work together really well because it takes an understanding of issues from multiple viewpoints to really solve a problem.” Barry said. “I’m looking forward to working with people outside of my college to solve an out-of-the-box issue.”

Despite the obstacles students may face while competing in the challenge, Ruffolo said at the end of the day, it is a creative outlet above all else. 

“We at a university sometimes don’t give these types of creative opportunities just to let yourself go and say ‘Hey, maybe I can do this,’” Ruffolo said. “There’s no right or wrong, there’s no one saying ‘if you don’t do this, you’re not going to get an A.’ You’re free to be creative. I wish I had that.”

This story was written by Will Eikenbary. They can be reached at [email protected]