The Innovation Hub takes off

By Chris Brodeur February 27, 2023

Students gather in the Innovation Hub to discover and develop social enterprise and business ventures that can change the world.

The myth of entrepreneurship is that it’s a solo mission, the lonely visionary toiling away in isolation until they achieve a breakthrough. But that trope fails to capture the collaboration required to drive meaningful change through social enterprise and business ventures, according to Patrice Luoma, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy and director of the M&T Bank Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac.

The reality is closer to what you might find in a comic book: a team of experts assembles, combining their superpowers to crystallize an idea. And in the newly established Innovation Hub, Quinnipiac’s innovators of tomorrow have their own Stark Tower — a proper headquarters equipped with maker spaces and state-of-the-art gadgets where students can join forces and watch their dreams soar to new heights.

“The Hub could be that place where you make those connections to find your next teammate, someone who has skills that you don’t have,” said Luoma, who holds a PhD in strategic management from Washington State University.

“What the Innovation Hub tries to model,” added QU Provost Debra Leibowitz, “is that there are, in fact, solutions out there for the problems we face. Finding them requires a team with diverse expertise. It requires putting pieces together in interesting ways. I think it’s natural for one student to hit a wall. The Innovation Hub allows them to collaborate with people who have answers they might not have on their own.”

The objective in opening the Hub last spring, Leibowitz said, was to “create an ecosystem around entrepreneurship and innovation” that would further the university’s longstanding support of future business leaders by utilizing the “breadth of expertise that our faculty and students have.”

At the center of that ecosystem is the Hub itself, a gathering place within the School of Business where project materials can be stored in lockers and pitch decks can be polished on a trio of wall-mounted flat screens. The room also played temporary host to the popular QU Pitch Competition amid the pandemic and serves as the headquarters for weekly meetings of the Quinnipiac chapter of the Entrepreneurship Club.

The Maker Space in the School of Computing and Engineering is one of the many "nodes" in the Innovation Hub.

Additional resources within the business school are the M&T Bank Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the M&T Bank Center for Women and Business, the Sales Simulation Lab, the Marketing Insights and Behavioral Research Lab, the Digital Workshop and the Financial Technology Center.

The Hub’s “nodes” — like the spokes on a wheel — are dedicated spaces in the other schools on the Mount Carmel Campus and beyond, including The Agency in the School of Communications (a student-run, full-service marketing firm), the Maker Space in the School of Computing and Engineering (home to an assortment of high-tech tools for building prototypes) and the Center for Interprofessional Healthcare Education on the North Haven campus.

John Reap, associate professor of mechanical engineering, detailed the available technology in the School of Computing and Engineering at a kickoff event for the Hub held in early February.

“You need to be able to use them effectively and safely, so we have some support students there who have been trained previously on the equipment that can potentially be used for the development of products,” said Reap, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “You can go in there and you can make your business. We have a laser cutter and multiple 3D printers. We also have screen printers for T-shirts or mugs. There’s even a CNC embroidery machine in that space.”

But years before the Hub was conceived and many of these tools were available, entrepreneurial students had access to workspaces in some of these same locations. As you might expect of young innovators, they made them their own, decorating them and staking out storage space. The Hub has formalized this funnel, creating an incubator for fledgling businesses.

The Agency in the School of Communications is a student-run, full-service marketing firm that serves as another one of the Hub's "nodes."

And thanks to a business matchmaking platform called Open Ocean, students can link up with like-minded creators who may possess skills that they don’t. A student in the School of Health Sciences could devise a product with the power to reshape the healthcare industry, pair up with an engineering student capable of crafting a prototype and round out their dream team with a savvy marketing student.

Trip Sanders, visiting instructor of business, has taught at Quinnipiac for six years, drawing on a wealth of entrepreneurial experience to identify potential partnerships among his students. He specializes in networking, the lifeblood of an ascendant startup company.

Pitching, a skill students learn to harness in Sanders’ introductory-level entrepreneurship courses, is the fun part. But the issue with a TV show like Shark Tank, Sanders said, is that it perpetuates society’s fascination with the “solopreneuer” while ignoring that “the most successful enterprises use a team approach.” Most smaller, non-televised startup competitions won’t even accept entries from one person, he said.

“The resources that are available in the Innovation Hub provide students with a physical space and gives them that human element,” said Sanders. “A lot of times people think or do these things in a vacuum and believe that they need to do it solely on their own.

“What we're trying to do is allow them to find a community, to explore their ideas in a safe space that will only push them to go further with it. That’s the most exciting part for me as their teacher. Students get an idea, but they just don’t know how to get from Point A to Point B with it. Seeing them move along in that process — not even necessarily arriving at the destination — is the part that’s the most exciting for me.”

One of Sanders’ former students, Emily Kane ’23, is a theater major who, fittingly, shines at the performative aspect of pitching. She’s now a double minor in entrepreneurship and history, and is currently partnering with classmate Sophia Casino ’23 on a prototype for a double-sided children’s toothbrush called Twoothie. They took first place in the personal venture category of the Connecticut State Business Plan Competition last April.

The Innovation Hub will truly take off, Kane said, when more students from outside the realm of the business school recognize that it has the power to launch any Bobcat’s career.

“If you've ever had an idea for anything whatsoever, anything that you might think is impossible, go to the Innovation Hub,” Kane said on a Zoom call from London, where she’s studying abroad this semester. “There you can find other people who might be willing to help you innovate your ideas and to help you get started.

“They might have the resources to find the factories or the companies that you want to work with in order to create your product, and you'll be able to find partners who know more about finance and things like that. You don’t have to be a business person to go to the Innovation Hub. You just have to have an idea.”

Students at QU have the resources to conceive an idea, develop it and build prototypes by using the Innovation Hub.

Students who attended the kickoff event enjoyed donuts and pizza as they listened to speakers, spun a wheel to win branded gear and scrawled the names of their favorite entrepreneurs on a whiteboard — Elon Musk, Mark Cuban and, yes, Rihanna, all made the list.

They also learned about the Hub’s other aim, which is to tear down silos and shift the perception of entrepreneurship, Luoma said. The Hub was designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and spark ingenuity in all Quinnipiac students — regardless of their chosen discipline. An idea doesn’t need to change the world to be worthy; “lifestyle businesses like hair salons and smoothie bars” are also welcome, she said.

At Quinnipiac, generations of dreamers now have a launching pad for their ambition, along with the infrastructure provided by faculty and fellow students to turn those dreams into a reality.

“It is the strength and the distinction of Quinnipiac — the breadth of our expertise at the size that we are,” Leibowitz said. “The challenges we face as people require that kind of breadth of expertise. They require the connection and the synthesis of thinking and working together. That's what Quinnipiac does best.”

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