The Innovation Culture

Issue Date: 
August 26, 2009
Max MillerMax Miller

The seeds for Pitt’s new Innovation Practice Institute (IPI) were sown during the University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s commencement in 2008.

Max Miller, a 1993 Pitt law school alumnus who serves on the school’s Alumni Board, attended the ceremony and talked with Pitt School of Law Dean Mary Crossley about the possibility of creating a new program in law and entrepreneurship. That discussion led ultimately to Miller’s being named director of the institute.

Miller joined the University in November 2008 as IPI director and was also appointed to Pitt’s adjunct faculty because he will be teaching classes as well. He has been working to design the IPI since his arrival.

According to Miller, the idea is to train lawyers to be effective counselors in business, but particularly in innovation—start-ups, early-stage ventures, and innovation spin-offs. The institute’s aim is to integrate the innovation culture into the study and practice of law.

“The marketplace is changing,” said Miller. “Businesses are under pressure to reduce costs, and they are deciding whether they should be paying $400, $500, or $600 an hour for the services of an attorney. When it comes to skill sets, lawyers need to prepare for that new marketplace.”

Miller, a Philadelphia native, certainly understands the training and education it takes to be effective in the current business and economic landscape. He began working at Federated Investors in the general corporate and securities practice after graduating from Pitt. In 1997, Miller moved to H.J. Heinz Co. as the company’s corporate counsel. While there, he handled international joint venture and distribution transactions as well as a myriad of domestic and international transactions as counsel to various business units. Heinz sent him to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill., where he earned his MBA in 2004. Miller worked as part of a specially selected internal project management team focused on logistics and warehousing while earning his MBA. When he graduated from Kellogg, he became a brand manager for Heinz ketchup, a position he held until 2005, when he started his own company, Raise Your Spirits, LLC, a marketing firm that promotes awareness of luxury brands.

Well versed in product branding and positioning, Miller wants to use the same skills in launching the IPI.

“The marketplace requires people to be creative in their solutions,” Miller said, noting that the program will expose law students to marketplace realities through experiential learning, similar to the law school’s already successful law clinic program.

Crossley said the school’s creation of the IPI “advances multiple goals: Consistent with a broader revamping of the curriculum aimed at preparing practice-ready new attorneys, it will permit our students to develop skills that will be highly marketable in legal practice.

“It will also give the law school an opportunity to establish national leadership in a field that is just beginning to grow in legal education. Finally, through the IPI, the law school will support the growth of a robust innovation ecosystem in the Pittsburgh region,” Crossley added.

The IPI is being supported by seed funding from the Heinz Endowments.

Ann Dugan, director of Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, said the IPI’s focus on start-ups couldn’t come at a better time.

“The number of large multinationals is eroding while many countries, including the United States, are seeing growth in jobs, in profits, and in vitality coming from the entrepreneurial community,” said Dugan. “Attorneys of tomorrow will have to be trained to assist entrepreneurs because that is the future of our economy.”

The IPI begins this fall with two classes: Commercializing New Technologies, which will be cotaught by Miller and Susan Cohen, a professor of business administration in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, and Understanding the Legal Services Marketplace, taught by Miller in the law school.

The Commercializing New Technologies class will include both JD and MBA degree candidates who will work in cross-disciplinary teams in actual companies. Miller said that wherever feasible, IPI courses will include cross-disciplinary elements.

“It’s critical for students to learn to work in teams, and it’s important to translate classroom learning to the business environment,” said Miller. “This approach allows the students to develop a comfort level in dealing with others by working in cross-disciplinary teams.”

In addition, the IPI’s program will immerse students in the culture of a particular industry as well as the “innovation culture.” Miller wants students to interact with companies and also to attend industry events, symposiums, and venture fairs to get a complete picture.

Miller uses the “clean plate” analogy to illustrate the importance of understanding the culture of a particular company or industry.

“If you have a clean plate in our culture, that’s great: It means you enjoyed the meal,” he said. “But, in some cultures, it’s not a good thing—it means you didn’t get enough. Working in the entrepreneurial and innovation space requires the same sort of sensitivity to the nuances of that space.”

Miller plans to introduce two courses each term comprising the strategies of experience, immersion, and engagement. Future courses, taught by what Miller calls “a dream team of adjuncts,” will encompass intellectual property strategies, crisis management, strategic alliances, and joint ventures.

Along with Dugan, Miller will work with Marc S. Malandro, associate vice chancellor for technology management and commercialization and director of Pitt’s Office of Technology Management.

The IPI’s larger goal is to develop students to be part of a regional community (whether on a management team as an attorney or as a business person) and to be a part of a pipeline of resources for the business innovation community.

“It’s most important to train students to have a broad view of the marketplace as they evaluate opportunities to stay and work in the Pittsburgh region,” said Miller. “Pittsburgh is a true innovation hub on the East Coast, and Pitt is in a good spot to be a core part of the innovative infrastructure in this region.”