Compared to the whole Boston entrepreneurial scene, Boston University admits it has fallen a little behind when it comes to fostering innovation among its community.
So, the private university is launching a set of initiatives – which the school groups under the label “Innovate@BU” – to give its over 30,000 students more opportunities to engage in creative problem-solving. More substantially, the school is investing $20 million and it’s committing to the plan for at least 10 years.
“We live in one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial cities in the world,” Gerald Fine, executive director of Innovate@BU, said in an interview. “Yet, at the same time, we don’t necessarily hear the name ‘Boston University’ associated with that innovative and entrepreneurial community as much as we’d like.”
Asked if he considers Innovate@BU a startup boot camp, an incubator or a more academic program, Fine answered “all of the above and more.” The set of initiatives, which includes more coursework and academic research on innovation, have the final goal of encouraging BU students to convert their ideas into tangible impact.
“WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE MOST INNOVATIVE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL CITIES IN THE WORLD. YET… WE DON’T NECESSARILY HEAR THE NAME ‘BOSTON UNIVERSITY’ ASSOCIATED WITH THAT INNOVATIVE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL COMMUNITY.”
According to Fine, “tangible impact” has a range of different meanings, from launching a business to a non-for-profit initiative, or even a vaguer “cultural and arts engagement.” Since the program is open to any BU student, what Fine considers as a successful output of the program is “seeing teams of students from different disciplines working together to solve problems.”
The first step of BU’s plan is giving Innovate@BU a home in the center of campus. The university is turning a former Radio Shack store – at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and St. Mary’s Street – into a 6,000-square-foot student hub called “The BUild Lab: IDG Capital Student Innovation Center.” The renovation, which is slated to be completed in late January 2018, is supposed to give students a place to meet for hackathons, accelerators, classes and workshops. In the future, BU plans to move the space into an even larger one, probably in Kenmore Square, Fine said.
All of the new curricular and extra-curricular activities will be devoted to teaching students how to take risks, how to identify new opportunities and how to build a human-centered design. “Whether [students] choose to use those skills for social good or for business startups, that’s up to them,” Fine said.
While similar at the core, the initiatives that will take place in the hub have all different lengths and timelines, from one-hour workshops to three-month accelerators.
Before launching Innovate@BU, the school had a bunch of different resources for students who wanted to be entrepreneurs, including a total of 54-credit classes, The BUzz lab (the school-wide incubator and accelerator) and BU Spark! (another incubator for computer science students). Innovate@BU should help coordinate and fund organically all these parts. Specifically, the BUzz Lab will be folded into Innovate@BU, with its leaders assisting Fine.
Fine expects Innovate@BU to be fully running in mid-January, with the start of the next semester. In the long run, part of these services will be available to innovators in the Boston region, not only to BU students and alumni.
“We’ve taken a good, hard look at ourselves here,” Fine said. “And concluded that we need to do more for our students.”