College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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In the classroom: Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces


An interdisciplinary look at developing new markets? That’s been done. A class in product development? Ditto. But a course that combines new product development and the broader issues of poverty and sustainability in emerging markets, taught from both a business and an engineering perspective? Now that’s something new.

Madhu Viswanathan, an associate professor of Business Administration in the College and Ali Yassine, an assistant professor in Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, are leading the class, entitled “Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces.”

“This is a one of a kind course,” said Viswanathan.

The course itself is a year-long immersion into what it means to live in poverty, as well as an exploration of the potential purchasing power of the millions of people who live at the subsistence level. Students spent the first few weeks of the semester researching poverty from both theoretical and experiential perspectives. During the semester break, they will visit India to experience firsthand the challenges of living in poverty. While there, they will conduct the types of research and interviews that are integral to new product development.

That’s when the creativity begins.

Students will use their findings to identify new product possibilities. Yet instead of satisfying a want in an affluent consumer – as most have been educated to do – they will need to think of products that address a central need in the lives of subsistence consumers with very little disposable income. That may be something like software for a cellphone that helps people learn to read, an additive that improves food preparation and safety, or perhaps a small appliance that purifies drinking water.

The 16 students in the class come from Business, Engineering, and Industrial Design. Most are graduate students with several years of professional experience, while two are undergraduates. Several have significant international experience. Like Viswanathan, most want to improve the daily lives of people living in poverty.

 “We have to envision the kind of world we want to live in,” Viswanathan said.

Visit the course Web site at:

UIUC College of Business