Sparking Startups and Student Skills



Photography by Jon Keeling (above image) and James Green (below)

In a former auto parts warehouse adjacent to the Xavier University campus at Dana and Woodward avenues in Evanston, sparks are flying. In this case, they are the metaphoric sparks, the kind that ignite ideas, transform, inspire or lead to simply looking at age-old problems a little differently. The lexicon for that spark is couched in such terms as “design thinking,” the “beginner mind” or “human-centered making” concepts.

Welcome to the university’s Center for Innovation (CFI), the two-year-old, forward-looking educational venture that marries academic theory with real-world business solutions. 

The Center for Innovation is the brainchild of Scott Chadwick, XU’s provost and chief academic officer, who sees CFI perfectly in line with the vision of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who gave the Jesuits their motto that an individual idea can set the world on fire. 

“Our goal is to help startups and institutions achieve their goals by advancing innovation, while giving our students a chance to learn innovation skills and get internships and jobs,” said Chadwick. 

The Center for Innovation is focused on serving three client areas: Startups, healthcare organizations and education. It has developed a suite of services for its business and educational clients that offer innovative design programs, coaching and mentoring. 

Xavier students can intern at CFI while working on innovation degree programs offered through the School of Arts and Innovation, which launched in the fall of 2015. It offers such courses as Intro to Making as part of a Human-Centered Making degree where students learn about 3D printing, design thinking and innovative design. 

Three startups currently housed in the Center for Innovation are Cerkl, Batterii and Benobe. Also working with CFI on various projects are such companies as Macy’s, Cincinnati Bell, Cintas, Vantiv, Ethicon and Lakota and Forest Hills school districts; Business partners include Intel-GE Care Innovations, MakerBot, Baloonr and Cintrifuse. 

Chadwick sees CFI also reflecting the Jesuit values of service. “It’s fun to partner with organizations that share many of our values. The companies that we work with are all very customer-focused, they care very much about their employees. They are really good people and they are trying to make the world a better place through the work that they do.” 

The guiding spirit at CFI is the center’s director, Tom Merrill, who also serves as the interim director of the School for Arts and Innovation. One might think Merrill’s background would be in engineering, business or marketing. Guess again. By training, he is a choral conductor. To Merrill it’s a background that makes perfect sense for running an innovation think tank. 

“It actually does,” Merrill says with a grin. “My choral background has made me a really good facilitator. I can ask questions from a position of ignorance that a businessperson would not dare ask. That can lead to some surprising ‘aha’ moments.”

And perhaps therein lies the secret to sparking innovation – the ability to come to a problem with an open mind and, most importantly, an empathetic one. It’s known as “design thinking,” a concept in the study of innovation that has produced books, academic papers, courses and seminars. The methodology tries to meld a designer’s ideas with the needs of customers, the possibilities of technology and a successful business model. Design thinkers like to quote one of the gurus of the field, Apple’s Steve Jobs, for famously saying, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  

Merrill says a liberal arts university like Xavier is well suited to teach design thinking, since it is a concept that cuts across all disciplines to impact all facets of product development. 

“Design thinking is a tool to solve human-centered problems. It begins with empathy,” Merrill says. “You have to understand the people for whom you are solving the problem. It’s a way of looking at problems from the human point of view.” 

“One of our precepts is to have a ‘beginner’s mind,’ ” adds Chadwick. “Tom models that really well with students. We create a safe zone for taking risks, failing and learning from that. That approach blossoms in academic teaching. It’s how we are trained to teach, to test ideas. Now we are bringing that skill set to real world innovation. That is what design thinking has the power to do.” 

At the Center for Innovation over the past few months, student interns have worked with such companies as Cerkl, which has developed software to streamline and target communications systems for business and educational institutions, and Batterii, a startup that has developed an integrated design tool to make collaboration more effective. 

The center opened in January of 2015 with 31 3D printers in a partnership with MakerBot, becoming one of the first private universities to offer the revolutionary technology driving the maker fabrication movement on such a large scale. Having such technology available has had a ripple effect throughout the XU academia. 

“It’s exciting to watch a lot of faculty, in dozens of areas, finding their way on how to integrate that technology into their programs,” Chadwick says.

For students, almost any major – from English to healthcare – could conceivably be involved in the center by pursuing a minor through the School of Arts and Innovation. 

Chadwick sees the innovation center as the best way to harmonize a liberal arts background with the need of students to develop real world skills and an innovative mindset that will serve them well the rest of their lives. 

And Merrill says CFI is a real-world way to implement the university’s core academic and moral values. 

“Our values tell us to care about community and people. This lets us help companies and institutions do that,” he says. “If we can help make the lives of patients or customers better, and come from a comfortable place of trust and compassion, we are helping to change the world. Business and education can come together to do that.”

 

The Xavier University Center for Innovation is located at 1601 Dana Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45207. For more information, call 513.745.3235 or visit innovation.xavier.edu.