The Sweet Spot
With a background in entrepreneurship, strategy, and innovation, Erik Noyes can’t imagine being any place but Babson.
By Donna Coco
Photo: Patrick O’Connor
Erik Noyes knew Babson would be a perfect fit for him. “If you’re interested in corporate entrepreneurship, why would you want to go any place else?” says the assistant professor of entrepreneurship. “So my job search was a no-brainer. I just needed to convince Babson.”
Having earned a PhD in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, Noyes was ready to teach. But his knowledge and enthusiasm for these subjects comes from more than academia. His business roots stem back to his youth, with entrepreneurs for parents and early involvement in their businesses. “They outfitted the U.S. Olympic crosscountry ski team when I was young and worked in the ski industry, with all the unbelievable ups and downs you can imagine based on weather,” says Noyes.
As an undergraduate at Brown University, Noyes studied international economic relations. Out in the work world, a stint in advertising (which he disliked immensely) convinced Noyes to get his MBA from the University of New Hampshire. While there, he worked on a research program that examined corporate innovation and new-product development. “I was interviewing all these new-product champions to understand how they manage innovation and push new products through the pipeline, and I caught the innovation bug in a big way,” he says.
A job at a strategy and innovation consulting firm let him continue to follow his passion. He worked his way up in the firm, taking on clients such as Hewlett-Packard, BMW, and Nokia. “I spent years working on the so-called fuzzy front end of innovation. How do you lead corporate teams in exploring growth opportunities in some structured way?” says Noyes. “It was just all too much fun.”
Eventually, though, Noyes grew tired of being on a plane all the time and focusing only on clients’ issues. Hiring market and technology experts to work with his clients gave Noyes insights into academia and clued him in to his next move. “I’d love to teach,” he thought. “I’ll research what I want to and specialize in what I want to.” Thus the focus on entrepreneurship and innovation in corporations for his PhD, which he earned from Boston University.
Noyes landed his job with Babson in 2007 and describes it in the same words as his consulting gig. “It’s been too much fun,” he says. The first course he taught was Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME), which he still teaches today. “It’s wild,” he says. “I love getting students right when they come into college, to be able to lay the tracks in terms of entrepreneurship and the functions of business.”
Above: A prototype of the cassava grater designed by a student team in Ghana. Pictured are Babson students So Yoon Jun ’13 (far left) and Elise Drake ’13 (next to Jun). Photo: M.K. Byrne ’13
Below: In India, a student team is working on redesigning a rickshaw. Pictured is Olin student Varun Mani (white shirt). Photo: Jake Felser
FME isn’t Noyes’ only class. He also has taught Entrepreneurship and Opportunity as well as Social Entrepreneurship by Design. But his latest all-consuming project is the class he co-designed with Ben Linder, associate professor of design and mechanical engineering at Olin College, called Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE). Now in its fourth semester, the class focuses on the needs of poor communities and how a simple product or service potentially may improve their well-being. The course brings together students from Babson, Olin, and Wellesley colleges and partners them with social ventures around the world. Teams tackle a range of business and design issues, from concept generation to market analysis to product development to scaling ventures. They also travel at least once a semester to work directly with their partners.
Each semester the class partners with four sites, currently in Alabama, Ghana, India, and a newly launched site in Massachusetts. The relationships are set up to be ongoing, so projects are at various stages. In Ghana, students are working with villages to develop a cassava grater and grating service, while another team is working with beekeepers to create products from discarded beeswax. In India, students are improving the design of rickshaws to help lessen wear on operators while keeping the rickshaw affordable. The Massachusetts team is in pure startup mode, as Noyes describes it, researching simple ways to address issues of food insecurity.
Noyes currently advises the Alabama group, which has partnered with the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO). “Hale County is one of the poorest counties in the United States,” says Noyes. “We’re working with them to create new entrepreneurial ventures to create jobs and skills training for at-risk youth.” To that end, the organization founded HERO Bike, which manufactures bicycles with frames made from locally grown bamboo. Noyes’ team is helping HERO market the bikes to eco-hotels and corporate bikeshare programs, and develop a line of bike accessories.
Running a course as complex as ADE absorbs much of Noyes’ time and energy, but he won’t back down. “I do it because I’m fascinated by it,” says Noyes. “A class like this would be suicide at other institutions, but since Babson values experiential learning, this is right in the sweet spot.”
Experiential education suits Noyes, he says, which is why he feels at home with all his courses at Babson. “With my background in consulting and entrepreneurship, I’m used to having many ill-formed, ambiguous ideas moving around and marshaling along these experiences,” he says. “Babson is a unique place, and many academics would hate it or just couldn’t do it. I love it.”