DU Research Lab Uses Human Behavior to Drive Business Decisions

Tucked away on the main floor of the Daniels College of Business building, an innovative research center studies the sometimes puzzling, sometimes predictable behavior of consumers. True, it lacks the customary beakers or spectrometers found in so many labs. But it does capitalize on the chemistry that results when a group of faculty and student researchers come together to help businesses and other academic departments develop their ideas.

The Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center (CiBiC) is an interdisciplinary space where human behavior is researched, with an emphasis on market-driven results.

The idea for the center dates back to 2015, when Ali Besharat and Melissa Akaka, both associate professors of marketing, first started imagining an organization that could leverage their backgrounds and capabilities to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative research around new products.

“We started thinking about how we can connect research with market development,” says Akaka, who co-directs CiBiC with Besharat. “We envisioned this research center as a way to help support the strategic priorities of Daniels, including market connectivity with client-based projects, providing a space for faculty to collect data for their academic research, bringing students in to work on studies, and creating co-curricular content for pedagogical purposes.”

What does that look like in practice? CiBiC developed its own proprietary framework, called “Innovation by Design,” which arrives at insights by combining primary data collected in the lab and through surveys and focus groups with secondary market research data.

“We saw there was a big disconnect between the folks doing the consumer insights work and those doing product development and brand management,” Besharat says. “We try to combine these two mindsets, these points of view all the way from the ideation stage to the product-development and execution stage.”

This allows them to work with any number of different partners at any stage of their business process. It also allows them to engage in interdisciplinary work, such as when they partnered with DU’s engineering school to develop a new product for Kong — a pet toy company.

“That framework of innovation easily allowed us to be interdisciplinary,” Akaka says. “We could go to the engineers and say, ‘You’re doing and thinking about engineering and might not want to talk to consumers, or research market trends. But we can do that for you.’”

When Climax Metals sought help with making an important decision on mining opportunities, the framework worked once again. There were some metals that have utility for aerospace, the military and electric-vehicle battery technology. “China was going to stop selling those metals abroad, so they wanted us to do research on potential facilities across the country, potential customers, amounts to mine, price points, growth potential, forecasting, ROI, etc.,” Besharat says. “It was a complex project, but they were very happy with the work our students produced.”

Students are integral to CiBiC’s work. Typically, CiBiC will enlist three or four graduate assistants and the occasional intern to work with faculty on various client projects.

“[Students] get involved with the consultancy and the research, helping the clients solve their problems. They’re the main contact points for the clients. They have regular meetings and ultimately present the final deliverable to them,” Besharat says.

Earlier this year, the University was awarded R1 classification by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, joining the ranks of other institutions engaged in the highest levels of research activity. Besharat and Akaka are excited to support researchers and students across campus with the many opportunities this classification affords.

“We’re available to support faculty across campus who are writing these federally funded grants, who need consumer insights and market research for them,” Akaka says. “We can help with the marketization and commercialization of it. We can be a force multiplier for all of the different departments around campus.”

Besharat is also eager to use DU’s R1 status to help make connections in the Denver community.

“The mission of CiBiC is to connect the academic world to the business community. We’re hoping to build that bridge,” he says. “There are a lot of research projects that can not only be published in prestigious journals but can also be used by companies to solve their problems. Our goal is to close that gap, meaning we help students train with the cutting edge of consumer insights so that when they are hired, companies see that value. The credibility that R1 gives us will help with that.”

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