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Goldberg contest counts on business: Companies find recruits, marketing opportunities

March 31, 2008

In terms of advertising revenue, the Final Four it ain't. But the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University is attracting more corporate sponsorships than ever before.

Named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, the annual event scheduled for April 5 is a testament to his drawings that lampooned government policies by using complicated contraptions to complete trivial tasks. This year's assignment is to assemble a hamburger consisting of at least one patty, two vegetables and two condiments between buns.

The event provides an entertaining forum for engineering students to showcase their creativity and intellect. Yet, a small but growing number of corporations angling for top talent view it as a marketing tool far more effective than attending a traditional job fair.

This year, nine sponsors, including local product-development firm Priio, have contributed time and money in hopes of landing a top recruit-kind of like a college basketball coach scouring for a blue-chip high-school player. U.S. News & World Report ranks Purdue's undergraduate and graduate programs in the top 12 nationwide.

"It gives us an opportunity to see a group of students that might have a little bit more to offer," Priio President Larry O'Cull said. "We're looking for the cut above."

Priio, which specializes in electronic engineering, has 11 employees and by far is the smallest company on the sponsorship roster.

Much of the list reads like a "who's who" of Fortune 500 heavyweights: New York-based General Electric, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin and Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark. Others include Omega in Connecticut, Bosch in California, Rockwell Collins in Iowa and BAE Systems Inc. in New Hampshire.

Interestingly, besides being the smallest sponsor, Priio is the only Indiana-based enterprise to lend the competition its support. Rube Goldberg co-chairman and nuclear engineering student Mike Mierzwa thinks that ultimately could change, though.

"We're looking to get as many companies involved as we can," he said. "We're working on bringing a few corporations from Indianapolis on board next year. [But some of] the companies that are on board have Indiana branches."

One of those is BAE Systems Inc., a developer of aerospace and defense systems that has a manufacturing plant in Fort Wayne. It began contributing in 2005 and gave $2,000 this year. No sponsorship tiers exist; rather, supporters donate what they wish.

Cash donations help underwrite advertising, venue rental, prize money and various other costs, including printing expenses for a booklet containing student resumes.

Purdue is among the universities on BAE's short list of locations that executives most often frequent. The reason is that, when it comes recruiting time, the company's name already resonates with students, said Joe Furino, BAE's university relations manager. But even if BAE is unsuccessful at graduation, there's the chance a student might remember the company later, he said.

"The end goal is obviously getting the return and steering students toward potential careers with us," he said. "We want to see that future pipeline, because there will be a shortage of engineers when the baby boomers leave."

Rockwell Collins, a developer of flight deck avionics and cabin electronics for commercial and military use, became involved with Rube Goldberg this year and promptly doled out $25,000, the most of any sponsor.

Purdue has a storied tradition of producing engineers, Rockwell spokesman Dave Gosch said, which are a vital cog of the corporation's operations. Moreover, the creativity of the competition complements Rockwell's aim to develop innovative discoveries, he added.

Mierzwa, a member of the Theta Tau professional engineering fraternity, cultivates sponsors from house alumni and from contacts at the university's College of Engineering. Other times, companies become familiar with the contest and contact the school. With the limited resources he and a few helpers have, there's only so much they can do, he lamented.

Yet, besides potentially attracting a few Indianapolis companies next year, they hope to snag Massachusetts-based Bose Corp. and London-based BP as well.

Sponsors this year for the first time mentored teams and provided hands-on assistance. Contributors must visit all teams, however, to prevent anyone from gaining an unfair advantage.

This year, the national competition will field at least seven teams, Mierzwa said, which are judged by executives of the corporate sponsors. Team members and sponsors also attended a banquet to encourage even more interaction between the two.

The regional contest that precedes the national competition was held at Purdue in February. The Purdue Society of Professional Engineers scored its fourth consecutive regional first-place finish by applying 101 steps to assemble a hamburger.

Rube Goldberg began as a rivalry between two Purdue engineering fraternities and was popular on campus in the 1940s and '50s, and was revived in 1983. Winners have appeared on shows such as "Today," "Good Morning America" and "Late Night With David Letterman."

Meanwhile, O'Cull at Priio will be a member of the judging panel April 5. Although the company he founded in 1996 remains small, the Purdue grad is looking for employees.

One of the prerequisites is that they must have "the right DNA," he said. That trait might be hard to spot on paper but perhaps not so difficult at a Rube Goldberg contest.
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