Maximizing Our Students’ Talents with Campus-Based Innovation Centers

Professor Roy Hinkley of the short-lived but unforgettable sitcom Gilligan’s Island had a delightful knack for maximizing the resources of the island where he and his shipmates were stranded. There was his creation of a lie detector out of the ship’s horn, a few sticks of bamboo, and a couple of radio batteries; also—and I think this one featured in more than episode—a bicycle-powered washing machine, which I suppose helps to explain how Gilligan’s red long-sleeve and the Skipper’s bright blue polo managed to remain unstained despite the sub-tropical elements.

Whether the Professor’s character was inspired by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is anyone’s guess, although both demonstrated busy ingenuity in the process of subduing an inhospitable environment and rendering it fruitful.

Pop culture and literature have long fantasized about clever protagonists who manage to transform spaces and their resources, however limited, into sites of research, experimentation, and knowledge-making. There is something greatly appealing about this fantasy, for it works in service to the infinite possibilities of discovery made possible by human curiosity, tenacity, and likely a little luck. Perhaps by a similar logic, we can imagine why our students are drawn to on-campus laboratories and research facilities, since they also promote creative experimentation and knowledge-making.

But the question of what students desire most in a laboratory or research facility is not entirely straightforward, and it is one well worth asking because there is always more work to be done in the process of improving educational experiences for our students. Based on current trends at private universities and colleges across the country, there appears no one-size-fits-all example of an innovation center. To the contrary, one could settle instead on at least three distinct models.

Innovation Centers and Multi-Disciplinary Learning: TCU’s Rees-Jones Hall

Higher education institutions are recognizing the generative benefits of crossing traditional academic lines to further advance knowledge across disciplines. With the creation of innovation centers that drive cross-pollination and fuse creative fields like computer science, math, design engineering, among others, we are witnessing the expanded potential for creating exciting and new innovations.

At Texas Christian University (TCU), one such example is Rees-Jones Hall, an incubator facility designed to maximize social and intellectual connectivity. The 63,000 square-foot facility is built on the premise that how we learn continually changes, grows, and transforms. Building on the TCU premise of creating the Academy of Tomorrow, which speaks less to a place and more to a philosophy of learning, Rees-Jones Hall is presented as neutral ground where interdisciplinary thinking, innovation, and learning can be fostered. For the TCU campus, the facility is the first not dedicated to a single department or school, which in turn stresses its design for cross-disciplinary work by way of interactive classrooms, 24-hour student study spaces, collaborative group rooms, global seminar rooms as well as faculty offices.

The lobby of the facility contains a transparent, interactive display wall that engages guests, promotes learning, and further strengthens the TCU brand through media experiences that link the university’s academic community to the awareness and study of important global challenges. The facility also houses the TCU IdeaFactory, a unit of the College of Sciences & Engineering where students can develop ideas, advance prototypes, conduct market analysis, and also test.

The IdeaFactory is surrounded by diverse programs including the Institute of Child Development and the TCU Energy Institute, both of which are organized around a central atrium to create a “vertical street” of interactive public space. This street helps the building facilitate creative “collisions,” those which hopefully encourage students and faculty to collaborate across multiple fields. Additionally, a pedestrian air bridge was built on the second level to connect Rees-Jones Hall and the Mary Couts Burnett Library. The facility has been designed to be energy efficient and to reduce utility usage; it is also LEED Gold certified.

Innovation Centers Fostering Industry Partnership: MIT’s IBM Watson Heath Building

A second model for campus-based innovation centers is one designed to create and enhance industry partnership. This model allows for facilities where companies can be embedded and work in tandem with university business and engineering schools to create new products and services. Partnerships of this kind create mutual benefits: learning experiences for students who in turn lend their talents to solving challenges facing business and industry.

Further, industry partnerships give students and faculty additional funding. By striking up corporate partnerships, higher education institutions have more resources to undertake research, and they are able to diversify their research areas. Another added benefit of such partnerships is job placement for students—good jobs, often with the institutions’ partner companies. This pipeline from research student to employee is ideal PR for any institution, since strong job placement numbers are a powerful tool in attracting prospective students.

Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) entered into research partnerships as far back as 1994 with eight major corporations—Amgen, DuPont, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, Merill Lynch, Microsoft, and NTT. As a result of these partnerships, more than 1,000 MIT students have been supported through research projects or fellowships, including about 650 graduate students and over 350 undergraduate students. Further, about 250 faculty and research staff members have received research support.

Among the newer partnerships is IBM, in which MIT now coordinates with IBM Research to conduct AI research, and also to work with global organizations to bridge algorithms that can potentially impact businesses and society. The innovation center is located in one of the most generative and fast-growing technology centers in the world: Kendall Square in Cambridge.

Across the street from MIT, down the road from Harvard, and situated in a dense cluster of the world’s leading technology companies, Kendall Square represents a vibrant ecosystem for innovators. The IBM Research team can be found in the IBM Watson Heath building, and the facility reflects the “open lab” initiative, where IBM researchers, faculty members, and students engage in research and development as teams.

Innovation Centers Driving Entrepreneurship: Startup Projects at Iona College and Carnegie Mellon

Thanks to technological advancements, students are positioned better than ever to launch their own companies. Private universities and colleges are responding by developing incubator programs along with facilities that harness students’ entrepreneurial drive and creative passion. The programs and their accompanying centers blur the lines between life and work in a way that gives students around the clock access to technology and support as they build and, ideally, launch their own companies.

Iona College of New Rochelle, New York, is home to the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, an interdisciplinary hub for the development of creativity and leadership skills critical for success in a global economy. At the Institute, students can learn how to take ideas from concept to execution; they can take a course on the entrepreneurial mindset, attend a guest lecture, and collaborate with peers and mentors in coworking space.

In July of 2020, Iona College announced the launch of two dynamic new majors within its Hynes Institute. The programs include a BA in Entrepreneurial Leadership as well as Business BA in Entrepreneurship. Also new to the Hynes Institute is an Online Advanced Certificate in Entrepreneurship & Innovation. As for the building itself, the Hynes Institute is located at the center of campus at Spellman Hall. It is an inviting 3,800-square-foot, glass-enclosed coworking space that offers a modern and sustainable home for campus-based creativity and innovation.

The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is another example of a campus-based, centralized hub designed to harness the entrepreneurial talents of the student body. It is described as an “innovation ecosystem,” one whose mission is to nurture startups by fostering an “inside-out” approach to creating winning commercial ventures from cutting-edge research to innovations that benefit society.

Located on the Tepper Quad, the space itself is highly visible on campus, spanning 8,000 square feet and containing versatile incubator space, classrooms, student study spaces, collaborative group rooms, global seminars, and more. More impressively, since 2007, nearly 700 startup projects have gone through the program and 153 companies have been formed. 63 of the companies have gone on to be accepted into local and national accelerators, and 11 have been acquired by other organizations. Guidance is provided at every stage by entrepreneurs-in-residence and a network of economic development partners.

The Swartz Center supports at any given moment dozens of projects, each operating at varying stages and levels. A recent success story, one that utilized the resources available through the facility, is RoBotany, a company modernizing agriculture by developing robotic solutions for indoor vertical farming. Led by CEO Austin Webb, a 2017 graduate of the Tepper School of Business, RoBotany secured an initial $1 million in seed capital through alumni-led venture capital firms and subsequently generated another $12 million of investment through its Series A round.

RoBotany was built in the Olympus incubator space, which consists of two side-by-side buildings on Henry Street, contains 3 floors on each side with 8,000 square feet in total, in addition to 6 dedicated offices, 6 open office spaces, 4 conference rooms, and even space for up to 50 people. Common areas at Olympus are open 24/7 and contain completely configurable tables and fu rniture.JJ Xu, a 2018 Tepper School graduate, used Swartz Center resources to create TalkMeUp, an AI-based on-demand communication training system. She was awarded a CMU Presidential Fellowship and secured $40,000 in investment from CMU. This is Xu’s second startup.

Duolingo, a Remarkable CMU Success Story

It is likely that you are familiar with Duolingo, an online social platform that teaches users languages for free while they simultaneously translate content across the web. Duolingo is in fact a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, the first Pittsburgh-based tech startup to be valued at more than $1 billion. The company has been boomed since its inception at CMU in 2011, and with more than 300 million users, Duolingo has become a household name.

Duolingo was co-founded by Luis von Ahn, a CMU alumnus and faculty member, who now serves as CEO, and one of his doctoral students, Severin Hacker, who received his PhD from CMU in 2014 and now serves as the company’s chief technology officer. In 2009, von Ahn and Hacker began work on a project that formed the foundation for Duolingo under Project Olympus. That it was conceived and developed on site at the Olympus incubator space serves not only as inspiration to future entrepreneurs at CMU, but it illustrates the efficacy and promising potential of providing such spaces for creative thinkers to develop and test ideas.

When Failure is No Longer a Fear

The rise of campus-based innovation centers supports the idea that students can flourish when collaboration with other students, faculty, and local businesses is made possible. Bringing these groups together in an innovation center allows students to tackle real-world problems, test theories, and facilitate product development. To do so in an open, inclusive environment creates a culture where failure is viewed not as an endpoint but as an opportunity to learn and move forward.

Demand is coming directly from students who recognize the value in gaining marketable experience. With innovation centers, private universities and colleges can appeal to students who are looking well in advance of graduation for opportunities to learn and create, and most ideally, to stand out as they enter an increasingly competitive marketplace.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.