Q&A with Anna Koulas and Raj Suri on the power of partnerships

By Natalie Kostelni

As co-leaders of the Drexel Solutions Institute (DSI), Anna Koulas and Raj Suri are spearheading efforts that explore how the University can better leverage external partnerships.

Anna Koulas, Vice President, Drexel Solutions Institute
That has meant building upon and connecting the partner engagements across the University to experiential learning opportunities that enhance curricula and research, and ensuring the University remains a leader in providing multidisciplinary solutions to challenges faced by industry and society.

“There is a bigger picture around the benefits that our partners and their challenges bring to students and what true experiential learning means,” said Koulas, who has spent the last two decades in higher education in a range of roles including executive director of business development at the LeBow College of Business.

As an R1 research institution built on a model of cooperative education, Drexel has a long history of collaborating with industry and bringing businesses and nonprofit organizations into academic spaces. It is this history that laid the foundation for the Innovation Engine.

The Engine was established through a gift from Jeff Westphal, an advocate of the University’s approach to experiential, multidisciplinary learning, and is led by the Office of the Provost in collaboration with DSI, which serves as a gateway for external partners to tap into Drexel’s vast innovation ecosystem.

Raj Suri, PhD, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Industry Partnerships
The Engine serves as the next phase in Drexel’s evolution and is at the heart of experiential learning at the University. The Engine will foster a more dynamic learning environment by taking real-world challenges faced by organizations and crafting them into courses and projects that students, led by faculty, will work on to come up with interdisciplinary solutions. To that end, the Engine provides an arena to nurture innovation and discovery and prepares students for the jobs of the future.

Suri oversees the Engine initiative as well as the research and curricular innovation arm of DSI.

“The Engine is a way to infuse innovation on campus by bringing partners, students and faculty together,” Suri said. “It's a vehicle to not only actively engage students, but also to help them experiment and become risk takers and innovators. Projects are a good way to start building interdisciplinary work, and that is where innovation emerges.”

Suri and Koulas shared more about their work with DSI, the Engine and how both initiatives are advancing Drexel’s future.

How would you describe the work of DSI?

Anna: We operate as a concierge on behalf of the University. We help organizations navigate the University and build out sustainable relationships around the talent acquisition needs of our partners, their talent development needs, and R&D synergies.

What drew you to the work you are doing with DSI and industry partners?

Anna: An interest in learning more about the challenges faced by our partners drew me to this work. We see that the challenges organizations face vary greatly, and even when they are in the same industry vertical, they could be facing a completely different set of circumstances. I find that very interesting.

Raj: My work with industry allowed me to draw a connection between what we do as researchers and what is practiced. Seeing what is happening on the other side of the fence helps to connect how research and training in academia is influencing practice.

What inspires you about that work?

Raj: I'm always amazed by the work of my colleagues and students. It’s the exchange of information and knowledge created in different fields, and observing students’ excitement when applying this, that I really find inspiring.

Anna: The other piece of it is how the student’s experience is enhanced when they are engaged with industry partners. The exposure students get working with a partner adds so much value to their educational experience, especially when they see the actual results from working on a project, and then when the client implements their recommendations — that's all very exciting.

The Innovation Engine is a new initiative that many people are unfamiliar with. How would you describe the Engine?

Anna: The Engine brings innovation to life and experiential learning to life. Our vision for collaboration is really thinking about the evolution of an apprenticeship model of learning that is hands on and spurring innovation out of that. Faculty and students can work directly with industry partners on the challenges they are facing and apply what they have learned to those issues.

Raj: The Engine can influence the curriculum by encouraging students to use creativity and problem solving to develop solutions to industry challenges. Not all courses will lend to it, but this approach will lead to developing new courses and enhancing existing courses. These courses and projects will become a hallmark of the Engine and will provide opportunity for students to use their academic knowledge and creativity to problem solve for industry partners. Students from different majors will be encouraged to bring their expertise and approaches to address such challenges, bringing a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. Students will also receive constructive feedback from industry partners involved in Engine courses or research projects and adapt these inputs as they continue to problem solve and build solutions for the challenges.

With the Engine, students stand to benefit from a collaboration that goes beyond the traditional co-op experience. Can you shed some light on that?

Raj: Through the Engine, we may be able to provide students and faculty in a classroom setting a chance to collaborate with peers in the same and different disciplines to create solutions for industry challenges. In that regard, they are gaining the skills necessary to take risks, experiment and innovate and work across silos in a classroom setting.

What do DSI and the Engine represent in terms of where the University is headed?

Raj: It’s an evolution of the education to engage industry, faculty and students continually in the academic experience that encourages creativity and builds impact.

Why is it important Drexel undertakes this transition to have these projects seep into curriculum and pedagogy rather than be isolated experiences?

Raj: Organizations continue to evolve and innovate to remain competitive and relevant in a dynamic environment, and the curriculum must keep up with these changes. It's important that the pedagogy engages with industry through experiences that are multifaceted and need multidisciplinary solutions. Pedagogy should encourage students to apply knowledge and creativity to provide impact. 

The Drexel Solutions Institute is a gateway for industry leaders to connect with research-active faculty and our University community. To learn how to get involved, faculty, students and prospective industry partners are encouraged to visit the Drexel Solutions Institute online and contact DSI@drexel.edu.

tell us about yourselves

Quote-gradient work hard and be kind
Raj Suri, PhD

What is the last book you read:
Raj: "Loonshots" by Safi Bahcall
Anna: "Think Again" by Adam Grant

Most influential book:
Raj: I have two — "Loonshots" and "CEO Excellence"
Anna: The Bible

Favorite Podcast:
Raj: My go-to podcast is the McKinsey podcast.
Anna: I don’t have one in particular because I listen to so many various things based on my interests.

Words to live by:
Raj: Work hard and be kind.
Anna: Hard work pays off.