October 21, 2019

6 Strategies to Make Your Innovation Lab Successful

Advising Leaders

By Amanda Wirth Lorenzo and Elliot Felix

Advancing innovation and entrepreneurship are goals in most strategic plans. Technological, demographic, and economic shifts mean higher education needs new business models, partnerships, course designs, and research programs. Students are driven to make an impact and create their own career opportunities. Campuses need places to help people take risks, learn the mindset and skill set of innovation, support interdisciplinary collaboration, and foster industry partnerships. As a result, innovation labs are appearing on university campuses around the globe to help foster new ideas and new enterprises.

As academic leaders or facilities planners, we know you are charged with creating and sustaining these spaces – and that they are more than spaces!

There is a real need for best practices in innovation labs because these are among the most complex initiatives to undertake as they serve multiple audiences on and off-campus, they operate around the clock, and they need to be both responsive and showcase the best of what your college or university has to offer.

If only it was as simple as creating a hip loft space with flexible furniture, lots of whiteboards, and Post-its everywhere. If only these labs ran themselves without continuous community engagement and programming. If only you could create it in isolation without regard to the all the other resources that already support the innovators and entrepreneurs you aim to attract!

Getting Started with Innovation Labs: Best Practices and Examples

Planning and operating an innovation lab is a bit more complicated. Successful labs are more than their space. Their programs, services, tools, and staffing also require thoughtful design and skilled operational planning. This needs to be done in the context of the university and its business and community partners.

So, in this article, we offer six aspects to consider to make your lab a success – purpose, positioning, programs, people, place, and props – which we’ve used on innovation projects at Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, Clemson University’s Watt Family Innovation Center, Marquette University’s Innovation Alley, University of California Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio, University of Michigan’s Hatchery, and University of Rochester’s iZone.

University of Rochester’s iZone (Credit: HOLT Architects)

Defining Innovation at Your Campus

Before you get started planning an innovation lab, you first need to step back and define what you mean by innovation in the first place. Creating a successful innovation lab requires an understanding of what makes innovation unique on your campus. Generic innovation labs can draw initial excitement and participation to a fresh new space but lack the sense of place that encourages people to return.

Defining your campus’s distinct innovation approach and culture will guide development of a successful innovation lab.

Start by looking externally to identify the unique markets, disciplines, or initiatives that are present on your campus and in the local region. What industries are concentrated in your area? What programs distinguish your college or university? What are the critical community needs? Then look internally to understand the diversity of innovation practices and cultures on your campus through user research. Interviews, focus groups, and surveys can gather stories about experiences exploring problems, taking risks, trying new things, failing, or discovering something new. Finally identify alignment between strengths on campus and economic drivers in the region to focus your innovation lab and inform the types of spaces, tools, or programs you might need. For instance, in establishing the vision and goals for Marquette’s Innovation Alley, we brought together industry and university stakeholders to identify areas of strength and opportunity.

1. What is the purpose of your innovation lab?
The best way to define the purpose of your lab is to think about what it aims to produce – and produce is the key word here because it has to be more than just a place to meet, something has to come out of these meetings! The purpose might be to design new courses and assignments like at Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio. Or the purpose could be to explore ideas for economic, social, and cultural impact like at Rochester’s iZone. Or the purpose could be developing new products and companies like at Carnegie Mellon’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Once the purpose is clear, capture it in a name. The name might be functional and describe what it does like the Blackstone Launchpads, or it might be more emotional and describe how people feel and what they experience like the Spark Innovation Studio at Kent State.

2. How can you best position your innovation lab?
The positioning of your innovation lab is its relationship to its audiences and its relationships to the other existing resources on your campus and in your community. To determine our lab’s audience, it’s good to think about a spectrum from internal to external; for instance, the University of Michigan Libraries’ Hatchery is a space for staff to work on internal projects whereas Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox ColLABorative hosts and helps external groups as well as internal ones – we were lucky enough to give a talk there on the future of student experience! It’s important to understand the existing ecosystem of clubs, centers, and community groups so that you can imagine how you’ll relate to them. Are they partners? Competitors? Somewhere in-between?

Elliot Felix presenting at Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox ColLABorative

3. What kinds of programs will you run to foster new ideas and enterprises
Your purpose and positioning should guide your programming. Programs might include workshops for people to learn new skills, lectures, hack-a-thons, mentoring events, matchmaking events, and pitch events – to name a few. These programs and events might be designed and produced by you as well as by other groups that you’ll host. (We recommend having some operating principles so that you can decide which external groups and programs are a good fit. Otherwise you may lose focus and drift off mission and/or unwittingly compromise the operation of your space.) Of course, these different event types and hosts can be combined; you can have a hack-a-thon involving students and community groups ending in a pitch where teams are mentored along the way.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship (Credit: MRY Architects)

4. What kind of place will your innovation lab be?
With the purpose and positioning clear and a sense of what the programs will be, you can imagine the space to convey their purpose, reflect the process, and support the programs. Spaces might include a diversity of meeting space, individual and group workspaces, project spaces hosting a team for a longer term, staff spaces, and storage spaces for things like supplies and furniture. The diversity of spaces should not only include different functionality but also different scales and atmospheres; for instance, small secluded spaces that offer teams the safety and privacy to incubate an idea might be coupled with large spaces to showcase those ideas through exhibitions and events. A good understanding of the ecosystem can also identify related spaces that might be part of the lab or adjacent to it, such as a coworking hub, an incubator, or even associated units such as the institution’s office of innovation. In addition to the space’s “hardware” in terms of walls, furniture, and technology, you also need to pay close attention to the norms that will make up the space’s “software” and will guide how the spaces will be used.

Clemson University’s Watt Family Innovation Center (Credit: Perkins+Will)

5. What people do you need to activate and operate our space?
Without the right people, innovation labs can falter; they can be generic meeting spaces that lack vibrancy and community or they might quickly become stale if the events and programs aren’t kept up to date to stay relevant. There are a variety of roles we see at innovation labs. These include a Community Manager to orient and support people, a Coordinator to plan and execute events, a Programmer to create programs, a Facilitator to lead workshops, a Trainer to build skills, an Operator to run the space and enforce norms, and an Evaluator to assess the programs and places to continuously improve them. Of course, these roles may be combined with one person fulfilling several of them. They can also be fulfilled by a mix of full-time staff, part-time staff, and students; for instance, a core part of what makes Rochester’s iZone work is its cohort of Fellows to run programs and operate the space.

UC Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio (Credit: Blitz)

6. What kinds of props do your programs and places need?
Having a diverse set of spaces and great programs often requires the right tools and equipment to be successful. Let’s call these the “props.” The most common props include:

  • Lots and lots of movable and fixed whiteboards; digital displays for sharing content at the scale of a team in a project meeting up to a hundred+ people at a lecture.
  • Post-its of various sizes, shapes, and colors; and things to write with including pens and markers.
  • Materials and supplies to express, explore, or prototype ideas are also useful and so are activities and games to take a break, stimulate thinking, and everything in between; for instance, chess, lego, or the card game set.
  • We’d also suggest at least a small library of books. These may cover tools and techniques like Gamestorming, the innovation process such as Innovation Methods Mapping, roles to play in the process like the 10 Faces of Innovation, guides for entrepreneurs like The Lean Startup, and innovation theory like The Innovator’s Dilemma or the Diffusion of Innovations.

Moving Forward with Your Innovation Lab

Take the first steps on your innovation lab by bringing together existing innovation leaders, inspiring your team with study tours, and piloting small ideas to test possibilities. Any new initiative can benefit from a recognition of what already exists – on your campus, among your peer institutions, and in industry. Recognizing the innovation leaders and hubs currently on campus can lay the groundwork for a new innovation lab and create a network of champions. Understanding existing practices and people will enable you to design a place to support these users and provide programs that engage diverse participants, whether different disciplines, roles, or generations, to collaborate and connect. A study tour to existing innovation labs, whether locally or nationally, can inspire new thinking and provide a perspective on what you might, or might not, want to replicate. Finally, identify a new program, like a hack-a-thon, or a small space to create a pop-up innovation lab you might pilot to test and refine how to best operate and engage people.

Higher education is undergoing a lot of change and new ideas are needed for courses and assignments that will better engage students and research projects that will solve societal problems. Colleges and universities aim to bridge town/gown and academia/industry divides by inviting in and reaching out to their community and building industry partners. Students are more entrepreneurial than ever and want to make an impact and create – rather than find – their ideal job. Innovation labs can support all of these efforts. Don’t stop at a cool space with lots of whiteboards and Post-its. Don’t work in isolation either. Instead, consider your purpose, positioning, programs, people, place, and props to make your innovation lab a success.


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