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How to Launch a Campus Innovation Center

The City College of New York's Zahn Innovation Center functions as a startup incubator, offering mentorship and pro-bono services, networking opportunities and rapid prototyping facilities. (photo by Wildbloom Photography)

Almost every week brings news of another campus opening an innovation center. Community colleges, liberal arts schools and research universities are all carving out intentional spaces for creativity and collaboration. Driven in part by the rapidly changing needs of employers, higher education is seeking to make its spaces more reflective of a work environment that places a premium on entrepreneurship. Most of these centers feature modern furniture, whiteboards and prototyping equipment like 3D printers. But architects and designers suggest university leaders ask themselves several key questions before getting too far into the process.

Jill Goebel, design director and the Southeast region education and culture practice area leader for Gensler, an architecture, design, planning and consulting firm, thinks that there may be some confusion around the lexicon. "There are innovation centers, makerspaces, accelerators and incubators," she noted. "Sometimes the language is muddied because people use the terms interchangeably."

But just because you create something that looks hip and cool does not mean that innovation happens there, Goebel warned. "There has to be a driving mission and vision behind it. We work with campuses on visioning sessions and interviews to unpack their culture and discover who is ready for it — what programs and leaders within the university have a willingness to be adaptive and go in and try things. You can't just plunk this in the middle of campus and think something is going to happen. It takes leadership."

Brad Lukanic, executive director of CannonDesign's education practice, also starts his work with universities with a visioning exercise. Among the questions he asks is: As an institution, how interdisciplinary do you want to be? "Depending on what programs are involved or if the provost or deans are in the room, you get very different answers," he said. Other questions he asks include how the new center aligns with the strategic mission of the institution and who will be responsible for the curation of content. "One of the potential pitfalls is you make these spaces but there is no ownership in terms of who manages and operates it," he explained. "You have to look beyond day one."

Lukanic said questions about the look and feel start with: Is it in a new facility or in a renovated facility? What do you want the front door and image to say? Is it about boundary crossing between departmental silos and interconnectedness? The look and feel is often intentionally different than what a school of business or engineering normally looks like, he said.

Why Build an Innovation Center?

Campus Technology spoke with several innovation center executives about what's driving the trend toward the creation of so many new innovation centers and what makes their spaces unique.

Lindsay Siegel, executive director of the 3-year-old Zahn Innovation Center at the City College of New York, said there are a number of reasons why a campus would want to have a physical hub of innovation on campus. One is to signal that the campus has a real investment in innovation.

The Zahn Center functions as a startup incubator, offering student teams mentorship and pro-bono services, networking opportunities and rapid prototyping facilities. It has two spaces on campus. One is an engineering-focused makerspace and the other one is a sleeker co-working office space with whiteboards and modular furniture.

"If you have startup teams looking to have a creative outlet, there is real importance in having a physical space for them to find each other and start working together and access prototyping equipment," Siegel added. "What we find in running an incubator is that so much of the value of our program comes from there being a community of other students also trying to come up with innovative new technologies. Being able to co-locate and work together is invaluable to the experience."

Siegel said the center's role on campus keeps expanding. "We have gotten involved in academic programming and bringing in speakers, expanded the mission to include software-based startups and social enterprise," she explained. "We partner on grants involving multi-disciplinary courses co-led by faculty. Faculty in business, computer science and electrical engineering can all work together to bring innovation into their classrooms. Because we are this resource on campus and don't have a home within any single school or discipline, it opens those doors a bit more."

A Student Focus

Charles Hasemann of the Michigan State University Innovation Center sees his facility as a response to student demand. "The students told us this is something they needed," said Hasemann, who serves as MSU's assistant vice president for innovation and economic development. To students, the notion of a gig economy and self-made careers is quite real, he said. "They want to have more control of their future. They see it is probably a good idea to have a skill set where they can make their own future and be adaptive. From the university's perspective, it is an opportunity to give students an extra set of skills — an understanding of markets, of the private sector, as another dimension of being a good graduate."

An innovation center at a large research university such as MSU is much more involved than at a smaller school, according to Hasemann. It combines several entities: One is a corporate engagement office, charged with creating partnerships with business and working with startup companies to help them gain access to people and the technology created at MSU. The technology transfer office is located in the innovation center to help faculty-created inventions find a way to the marketplace and societal benefit. That process also involves supporting startups. "We have to have a startup engine to bring talent, funding and planning to that effort," Hasemann explained. "Faculty members usually don't have the skill set. We have to provide that backbone."

Layered on top of those efforts is the student-focused aspect. An incubator for student entrepreneurs helps graduate and undergraduate students get internships to get involved in the process of researching markets, building business plans and finding likely clients for MSU startups.

All these efforts are co-located in one building off campus, next door to a community technology incubator. "Many universities have all these parts, but they are not physically co-located and I think they lose a lot of potential," said Hasemann. "We very intentionally put it together and we are off campus on purpose. It is in fact a different activity than what takes place on campus every day."

He noted that there are interesting business concepts coming out of many areas of the university, including social sciences, communications arts and sciences and music. "In agriculture, we have students asking why they can't start their own organic tea business. We don't turn anybody away, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's not hard to get people to work with us," he said. "The hard part is getting them to know who we are and what we do."

For institutions that are considering establishing an innovation center, case studies of types of incubators and innovation spaces that align with your academic goals can be a good springboard. Consider looking beyond higher ed: Models for how to think about innovation center workspaces are coming from both workplace and K-12 settings, said CannonDesign's Lukanic. "If you look at the Googles and Facebooks of the world, how people are connecting and collaborating is fundamentally different, so the industry partners are leading this," he said, adding that it can also help to look at what some of the innovative charter schools are doing, such as the Incubator School in Los Angeles. "In some ways, the schools sending you incoming students are great resources for ways to see what students are coming prepared for in terms of thinking."

Going Big With 3D Printing

Some campus innovation centers have put an emphasis on the potential of 3D printing to allow students to innovate, rolling out large numbers of machines to support heavy use. With its 31 MakerBot 3D printers, Xavier University (OH) has created a 3D printing service available both to campus users and to the public. The facility gives students the opportunity to craft material to help businesses solve real-world problems.

"We are working on a project with an electrical company remodeling a couple of pieces of equipment on their manufacturing floor," said David Zlatic, director of the Xavier Center for Innovation. "They had a piece that wasn't working right. We redesigned it and printed out three different options for them at a much cheaper cost than going out and having extrusion done. They picked one they liked and we are going to reproduce more of those."

While Zlatic heads up the initiative, six paid student interns operate the space. "I get the file and hand it to them and they figure out how to slice it, prepare it to print and print it. I give them the basics of the job and the parameters and they take it and run with it."

Zlatic said there were few logistical challenges in setting up a large 3D printing operation. The innovation center's space is about 12,000 square feet and 3D printing takes up only about 1,000 square feet of it. "MakerBot supports a Web interface that allows us to send jobs to the printers and monitor them remotely," he added. "I can send a job and watch them print from my house." The only challenge was finding enough students who had some kind of experience in the 3D printing realm, he noted. "Thankfully there are students coming out of high school with some experience. I have a staff of six students, and five of them are freshmen."

At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a large 3D printing operation inside the library is part of an effort to integrate 3D printing into the curriculum. Printing an object can be a time-consuming process, and UMass officials and faculty realized that they would need a fairly large number of printers to support students' coursework needs. "If you have a class of 30 to 70 people trying to print their projects at once at the end of the semester, you could end up with a lot of frustrated students," noted Jay Schafer, director of libraries at the school. That was the rationale for going with 50 MakerBot printers.

So far, the setup and operations have gone smoothly, said Schafer. "One thing that was surprising to all of us is that these don't take up all that much room," he said. Racks holding three or four printers each keep the footprint reasonable. In addition, the printers are networked so they all run off one print release station. "You don't have to have separate PCs for each machine," he noted. "They are all very well networked, and because of that fairly reasonable as far as labor intensity."

Some people see 3D printing as the next industrial revolution, Schafer said. "We believe it does have significant future, and we wanted the library to be part of that. Sometimes there is a perception of libraries as places you go to get a book. But there are fewer and fewer print books around. We want to make sure the library stays a vital center of intellectual activity on campus. This was just a natural way for us to do that."

Asked about lessons learned in the process of setting up the large-scale 3D printing operation, Xavier's Zlatic said, "Don't be afraid. You are going to have naysayers. Just go and they will catch up with you. Find some key partners and engage with them from the beginning."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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