Refugee support, event connection part of McMillon Innovation Studio presentations

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,000 views 

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon speaks to University of Arkansas students Wednesday (Dec. 6) during demo day at the McMillon Innovation Studio.

Technology helping refugees better access healthcare and an app that connects Sam’s Club stores to local events were part of presentations heard by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon on Wednesday (Dec. 6) as part of the McMillon Innovation Studio demo day.

The studio, part of the University of Arkansas, held the event to display the work of students on behalf of businesses and nonprofits. McMillon congratulated the presenting students saying he hoped Walmart would hire some of them. He also explained how the studio was created.

“I was here on campus one day talking with Matt Waller (Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the time), and I was describing to him the gap in our companies for product managers, and I described to him what product managers look like. He listened, and we had a good conversation, and shortly after, he called me and said that was a really good idea, and the university could help,” McMillon said.

Then he said Waller told him it would be a good idea for him to fund it.

“My idea flow to the university has slowed since then,” McMillon joked. “It’s been great to see all the work and progress of these students over the years.”

McMillon held a private 20-minute chat with the students following the presentations.

The studio was originally funded by McMillon, an alumni, and his wife Shelley, with $1 million in 2014 and an additional $1 million in 2020. The studio is a resource for UA students to work on real-world problems. Other major donors include Kelly and Steve Barnes, Claude and Don Harris, and Sunny Gosain.

There were 16 teams this semester in the McMillon Innovation Studio, which is outside of their classes. Nine of those teams made presentations at Wednesday’s event. In the organizational design team track, student teams worked on two projects for Sam’s Club and one for Walmart that focused on sustainability utilizing surplus cowhides, starting with making enhanced premium leather products like smart wallets or footwear that could track steps and monitor health metrics. Another team developed an app to help students understand the impact of the foods they eat on their gut health.

One of the Sam’s Club teams worked on an app to help the retailer reap the financial benefits from local events that bring outsiders to town. The local event hub application was developed by a team of students with the help of two Sam’s Club mentors. The retailer wanted to have an easy way to know how to plan merchandise around local events that drive additional traffic for specific items.

It was a real-time problem that, if solved, could result in $9.6 million in additional sales when a local club connects to area events, according to the presenters. The app is being tested by the retailer. The app allows a club manager or home office employee to see a calendar of events in local areas. It goes deeper to provide the category departments with the most opportunity for increased sales. The event details are also in the app.

Joe Burund, product design lead at Sam’s Club and mentor to the group, told Talk Business & Politics that the company will likely use some version of the technology developed by the students. He said Sam’s Club knows there is lost revenue because too many clubs are not able to easily tap into local events. He said there is limited time and budget for tech teams to address a wide array of problems. Working with the students on this one, he said, was rewarding personally as an alumni but also worthwhile for Sam’s Club.

The Sam’s Club team won the award for the organizational design team track.

The event also had a track for social impact teams, where three of the four teams presented their business solutions for community problems. A team led by Sarah Waller worked on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art project that looked at how young artists graduating from college might work to grow into a sustainable business with a 12-week residency and mentorship program. The residency program provides studio space and professional development. Six slots at Crystal Bridges and six slots at The Momentary for performing artists. The number of slots would expand by 2026 when the Crystal Bridges expansion is completed.

Another group presented a solution for better housing that was a database of information for small developers to use to gain more understanding of building costs and better predict further demand to build the right number of houses, in the right sizes and price points to meet demand at the right time.

A group working on behalf of Community Clinic and NWA Canopy – the nonprofit that settles refugees in the region – sought to provide new refugees with more information about how to navigate local healthcare systems. The students worked on an application that is downloaded into all the smartphones given to refugees when they come to Canopy NWA. The app provides refugees a better way to access the information they need using Chat GPT functions to translate for the users. It also provides information on insurance and Medicaid programs. The emergency functions of 911 are also explained in the app. There is a pain guide and speech-to-text option linked directly to doctors for better communication.

The Community Clinic and NWA Canopy team won the award for “best presentation” in the social track and the overall award for “best plan.” The team said NWA Canopy is expected to resettle 250 refugees in 2024, and they hope the resource will make a positive difference in helping them find the healthcare resources they need and understand the costs and other forms of payment.

Ethan Pingel, product manager for Cavity Airstream, received an award for an innovative fan attachment designed for efficient drying of wall cavities after flooding, negating the need for baseboard removal and ensuring no visible damage. Pingel said he came up with the idea for the product after helping his girlfriend move out of two apartments after they had flooded. He worked with a local restoration business, built a prototype and tested it at home to find the Cavity Airstream drying the targeted areas up to 25% faster. His next step is to work on a more solid prototype and test it with local restoration teams on actual jobs. He is also working on a patent for the device.