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April 20, 2009 | last updated November 30, 2011 6:02 pm

Innovation expertise | UMaine readies for Doug Hall's creativity-based curriculum

Photo/University of Maine
Photo/University of Maine
Inventor Doug Hall says his innovation courses at UMaine will be based on data, as opposed to "funny-hats creative courses"

Doug Hall — inventor, entrepreneur and the person once dubbed by caustic "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell as "the most annoying man in America" — will teach two courses in the fall at the University of Maine in the minor he helped create.

Hall, a UMaine alumnus who last year delivered the school's commencement speech, will move from Ohio to a home on campus to teach "Innovation Engineering I: The beginning of an idea" and "Innovation Engineering III: Making your idea real" as part of the Innovation Engineering minor launched in fall 2005 and trademarked by Hall and his company, Eureka Ranch. UMaine English Professor Margo Lukens will co-teach the courses with Hall, who has never taught academic courses before. The courses utilize Hall's study of creativity and commercialization, and Hall intends to present via video some of his Fortune 500 clients as case studies, though their identities will be concealed.

"Innovation engineering is about applying innovation to what your passion is," says Hall, who will donate his time to his alma mater. "What makes this class different from any other class like this anywhere else on the planet is we have data to support these methods. As opposed to a funny-hats creative course, we're teaching people. Literally, it's much more of a disciplined approach at how things can be developed more effectively. It's coming up with ideas that make a difference."

Ideas are Hall's forte. A 1981 UMaine graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, Hall landed at consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble, where he eventually became the master marketing inventor and developed and produced a record nine new items in one year. But Hall is a restless soul, and an inventor especially when it comes to his own career. He left Procter & Gamble and eventually opened the Eureka Mansion in Newtown, Ohio, in 1992. Eureka was a brainstorming retreat frequented by bigwigs from Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, American Express and Johnson & Johnson. The idea was to study innovation's best practices and use them to not only generate great ideas, but to figure out how to commercialize or implement those great ideas. Using Hall's innovation principles of "creativity, stimulus and fun," according to his website, workshops included playing with Nerf guns, water cannons and whoopee cushions.

Hall quickly became an innovation go-to for some of the biggest names in business, and Eureka eventually moved to a custom space, the Eureka Ranch, and spawned a handful of spinoff companies, including one selling software that evaluates the quality of an idea, how much you will sell and what to expect for royalties.

Hall monitored the brainstorming techniques of his clients at Eureka and came up with what he says are proven techniques to maximize creativity, identify top ideas and commercialize those ideas. Hall's inventor formula won the George Land Award in 1998 from Fast Company magazine and the Innovation Network, and the Wall Street Journal has said his work with small and large company executives at Eureka "goes to any length to encourage a fresh perspective."

Hall, a 50-year-old married father of three, is a short, balding ball of energy who often wears colorful Hawaiian shirts on his lecture circuit, where he says he charges $50,000 a day. He's been called an idea guru by Inc. magazine and "the most annoying man in America" by former boss Cowell, who hired him as a judge on his 2006 reality television show "American Inventor." In 2007, the magazine Inventors Digest said Hall "embraces his reputation as an arrogant Mr. Know-it-all."

But however you slice it, Hall is clearly a UMaine grad made good — he's a multimillionaire who prefers to work barefoot, who calls staff at his Eureka Ranch by the eerily Orwellian moniker "trained brains" and who has built a career on the notion that creativity is not only formulaic, but it benefits from the formula.

Thinkers and doers

Hall's UMaine course will incorporate his own research as well as the work of creative theorists like George Prince, co-founder of Synectics Inc., a global creativity consulting company launched in 1960 that was one of the first to record and study innovation sessions to understand why some were productive and others were not. Hall has developed a number of resources for innovators — including the USA National Innovation Marketplace, an online database to help inventors connect with companies that can commercialize their work.

"The students are getting one of the top guys in the field, who really knows his stuff," says Patrick Raymond, executive director of the United Inventors Association, the largest trade group for inventors in the country. Hall donates to the group. "He believes in data. That's how Doug approaches innovation — he's a data guy."

"He's a risk-taker," says John Mahon, dean of the UMaine Business School and instructor in the innovation major. "He helps students understand in a practical manner what is a reasonable risk to take."

Hall, of course, has big plans for his Innovation Engineering minor. He'll write the Innovation Engineering textbook this fall with Lukens, and he intends to eventually create Innovation Engineering programs around the world that will use the University of Maine as a training ground for their faculty. Graduating Maine students with Innovation Engineering minors, Hall says, means "a total transformation" of the Maine business community. Eureka's satellite workshops, conducted through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program nationwide, have directly resulted in a $300 million net increase in sales for participants, Hall says. "This is a revolution, not an evolution," he says.

And how does one recruit for a revolution? Why, YouTube, of course. On the website, in a 30-second video set to a bouncy jazz beat, Hall stands in the lobby of UMaine's Foster Student Innovation Center, with a UMaine coffee cup in one hand, as cool as if he'd just been waylaid by the camera on his way into a workshop, which, in fact, he was. Behind him, a family of Mr. Potato Heads waves from atop the reception desk. "If you sign up this fall for Innovation Engineering," Hall says, curling his other hand and punching the air, "I will teach you how to jump start your brain, how to open up your brain to believe in ideas like you've never seen before. We'll have some laughs, you'll learn some stories, and I can promise you, at the end of this, it will be the singular most memorable course you've ever taken in your entire life."

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