By Travis J. Brown, senior executive assistant dean for innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialization, and executive director of the Shoemaker Innovation Center
A common misconception when it comes to supporting student innovation and student entrepreneurship is that all educational spaces serve the same purpose. But only a small subset of student inventors and entrepreneurs I work with make use of makerspaces on campuses to develop their product and startup. Instead, they work at incubators like the Shoebox, within the Shoemaker Innovation Center in Luddy Hall. This space, which I direct, can be used by all students at Indiana University Bloomington.
Incubators provide office space and educational programming to help students who have the intention of launching a viable business. Educational programming includes market validation, pitch development and investment solicitation.
In a university setting, incubators typically have a mission of experiential learning rather than economic development, so metrics such as job creation and return on investment do not define success. Instead, success for a university incubator hinges on students being actively engaged in the development of their invention and startup for the benefit of their learning.
On the other hand, students who use makerspaces aren’t necessarily interested in becoming entrepreneurs, but they are interested in building, bringing their solutions to fruition through physical prototyping. Students who have an idea that requires developing a physical object should seek out a makerspace.
The Protolabs, led by Christian McKay, are in Myles Brand Hall at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, and the MAD Labs run by Ryan Mandell, which are in the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, are open to all students and are equipped to provide the support they require when realizing their creations.
The university’s makerspaces, commonly referred to as fabrication or fab labs, allow students to develop an understanding of some of the challenges they may face when envisioning and building a product. Much of the learning takes place when students begin to realize the constraints of the materials they are using, which moves them beyond merely conceptualizing and toward implementing.
While makerspaces and incubators are certainly complementary, they each serve their own purpose. In a university setting, their joint mission is to ensure that students are provided the space and resources they require to get their ideas out of their heads and into the hands of those they are endeavoring to serve.