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Reflections from the Interim Executive Director

“On a scale of 1 to 10, your team delivered at a 57!”  This was the first time I have heard such superlative praise but was not surprised that it was from a project sponsor who was complementing their da Vinci team. They exceeded expectations by a larger measure – delivering in months what the sponsor thought might take a year or more. Experiences like this make it a pleasure to serve as the interim executive director of the VCU da Vinci Center for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Our Certificate in Product Innovation program led by Allison Schumacher will have more than 125 students enrolled this year and will graduate more than 50. Ten teams will work on industry projects this year. The program works so well because of the energy, spirit, and experience Allison brings, our faculty and mentors who provide sage advice, and our operations team who helps it run smoothly day to day.

Our new Venture Creation Certificate program led by David Holland already has 25 students and expects to graduate 13 this first year. David uses his own experiences as well as his network of entrepreneurial contacts to provide our students with insights and opportunities. David’s leadership goes beyond the Center. He is generous with his time, advising several university and community organizations and shares insights with students. We look forward to growing this program substantially since President Rao has shared that more than 50% of VCU students have an interest in starting their own business.

Our newest program, VCU Innovate Living-Learning Community shares many attributes with a startup, where funding and serendipity play outsized roles. Innovate is fortunate to host Lighthouse Labs, a Richmond incubator, in Innovate this fall and we plan to host them again this spring. We started with 10 students this fall and hope to have 30 by next year. Somiah Lattimore, our director, has so many great ideas in the pipeline for our students, but like a startup, the path to success has many roadblocks and is often circuitous. We are lucky that Somiah leads this program since she has so much experience with startups – both winners and losers.  I especially appreciate Somiah’s patience while we get this program up and running.

I am in awe of the talent, enthusiasm, and energy of the VCU da Vinci Center faculty and staff.  In quick order the team created a common application for students enrolling in the various undergraduate programs. They take the time to interview every applicant and advise applicants on the best way to fit the da Vinci courses in their curriculum. They seek out interesting and inspiring speakers and identify challenging projects for our students. They freely give of their time to create wonderful learning opportunities in the classroom and in the field. And it shows.

Joseph Cipolla

Interim Executive Director, VCU da Vinci Center

Finding Innovation at Lighthouse Labs

Tucked back from the hubbub of West Grace Street you will find on of VCU’s newly opened Living-Learning Programs, VCU Innovate. Tucked inside that, past the lobby, down the hall, and in a small seminar room, you will find something somewhat different.

That small seminar room is the home of Lighthouse Labs, a startup accelerator that helps entrepreneurs in Central Virginia get businesses off the ground and ready for taking investment. Founders receive $20,000 to invest in their startups, as well as 15 intensive weeks of mentoring and training in preparation for pitches to investors. The best part is that they get this with no strings attached (Lighthouse Labs takes 0% equity, unlike most accelerators).

Lighthouse Labs is able to do this through their nonprofit status, participating in their own fundraising efforts year round. But this also means the program has some limitations, specifically with regards to the number of participants. At this point in time the program only accepts 6 applicant companies per year, a slim portion of the total applicant pool.

But, what does this have to do with VCU? And why are they in a VCU facility?

Well, Lighthouse partnered with the VCU Innovate, the da Vinci Center’s Living-Learning Program, who saw an opportunity to provide an insider experience for students participating in the Living Learning Program. These students live in the residence hall and work among the various founders, gaining hands-on experience in the world of entrepreneurial ventures.

I recently visited Lighthouse Labs to talk to the founders and get a sneak peak of a typical day in the Lab. All the startups in Lighthouse that I spoke to are at the forefront of their industries. Zoozil, for example, has digitized the choose-your-own-adventure novel format and integrated it with backend tools to help educators help their students with reading. Another, MajorClarity, helps high school students pick a career my assessing their interests and strengths, and then finding them hands-on experiences with the work in that field. As I talked with each of the founders, I became more and more impressed with the caliber of their ideas, and the work they continually put into developing them.

Despite the already small seminar room, I felt a little small compared to these all-stars of the Richmond startup scene, at least, until the weekly standup meeting began. These meetings are an important part of the process because they allow each founder to give the group a status update. As the founders talked about being stressed, what was exciting them, and where they needed help, I was reminded that you don’t need to be an all-star to be an innovator.

Talking with the founders afterwards, I learned that the founder of Zoozil was a struggling reader when he was a kid, and the founder of MajorClarity switched his major several times. I found it funny that we typically would assume it’s the award winning teachers and career counselors who drive innovation in these fields. Often though, it’s the dropouts and soul-seekers who know when something isn’t working and try to fix it. Even if we are all not cut-out to be entrepreneurs like the founders, both the founders and students working with them prove that it’s our ideas, not accomplishments, that make us innovators.

If you’ve got an innovative idea that has potential, go for it. Or if you want to help any of the startups currently in Lighthouse Labs work on their ideas, shoot them an email and let them know!

Lighthouse Labs website

Does this City work for Me?

johnbonanoWe often dream of faraway places we will one day travel to. We hope this travel will either help us attain the job of our dreams, the vacation we always hoped for, or provide the escape route that arrived in just the nick of time. But what happens when you finally arrive at your destination? What happens when you actually have to live in the city you always dreamed about?

That is something that one of our MPI Alumni John Bonano set out to discover.

Recently John made the decision to start over. But instead of choosing to simply relocate to a city he found a job in, he decided to take the cities he was curious about for a test-drive.

He told me, “there’s something about being in a new city, you immediately know whether or not you belong there.” John knows for him personally, that means living in a city that is close to nature. In the cities he has visited so far, he has seen how access to nature can dictate the culture of an area. But more importantly, he has found that access, or lackthereof, can affect your work/life balance.

As I am sure many of us can agree, “There needs to be more synchronization between what you do for pleasure and what you do for your career… People need to travel, get away from their jobs, take a break.” It can be disappointing if you relocate to a city and discover, you don’t have access to the kinds of things you are interested in. Or even access to the things or people you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This can be tough to focus on especially straight out of school, or when you are trying to get to the next level of your career. John noted that this kind of tunnel vision can be dangerous, especially when, you don’t think about how “when you are doing all these amazing jobs, you also have to have a normal life.”

But while John stressed the importance of taking the time to figure out what you want, he also stressed the importance of taking a leap of faith and going outside your comfort zone. For him this trip has enabled him to learn how to be ok with the unknown, take risks, and focus on just the essentials.

He likes the fact that what he is doing now is similar to what he learned at the da Vinci Center because, “If you have the mindset of innovation, barriers do not exist. There are a million things you can do. You can create your own world, in your environment in anyway you want. What I am realizing now is, I can do anything I want to. I can go anywhere I want to.”

The Operetta of Innovation

We are all familiar with the legend that is, was, and has become Steve Jobs. On October 23rd we will no doubt discover a new interpretation of the Steve Jobs mythology as yet another film, chronicling his successes and failures, premieres across the nation.

If you scan any list of top ten innovators in the past decade you will undoubtedly find Steve Jobs. Yet as his counterpart, Steve Wozniak says to Jobs in this latest film, “What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”

young-steve-jobsTo this Jobs respond, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

If we are trying to answer Wozniack’s question, then describing one’s occupation is a limited view of what and how individuals arrive at innovation. And yet conversely, it is not simply the “aha moment” either.

This year we will explore what it means to be an innovator. What does it take to be considered an innovator in your field? And how hard is it to stay there? Who is involved in that process, and how did they get there?

Throughout this journey we want to hear from you, our readers. We want to know what your definition of innovation is, who you think is achieving it, and what you hope it will mean for the future.

We hope you join us as we search for what it means to be a part of the operetta of innovation. Until then, we remain curious.

From MPI to IBM

“Innovation starts when all other avenues have been exhausted” according to Lauren Pleveich, a May 2015 graduate of the Masters of Product Innovation program. Lauren is now working as an Experience Architect at IBM Interactive Experience, but this wasn’t where she thought she was going to be initially.

A graduate of VCU Arts with a major in Painting and Printmaking, Lauren considered several career paths, including teaching and creative advertising. She initially started down that path by getting her Master of Fine Arts in Painting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, but began to realize that was not the career she wanted to pursue.

Lauren’s decision to return to VCU for the MPI program was in part due to her experience in the certificate program as an undergraduate. Though she had worked on a project that she admitted to be less than glamorous in nature, she says that’s the experience to which she can trace her interest in product innovation.

“Between the team dynamics, the client rapport and working with users who were genuinely engaged, I found my passion for products. It took getting another masters in a different field to realize that though. Ah well, better late than never!”

Similar to her education, Lauren never expected to be working for IBM, nor had an interest in doing so at first. “I was very happy where I was working at the time, but decided to go to a talk by an IBM creative because I had no idea they even did creative stuff (don’t tell anyone).”

IBM Interactive Experience does just that, design user experiences, most notably for websites like the PGA Masters Tournament. As an Experience Architect, Lauren works between the research and design roles, allowing her to make use of the design thinking skills she gained through the master program.

In her work at Interactive Experience, she says she most enjoys figuring out the challenges formed by both the target users and the technologies used. “Technology has the power to change a lot of things. It just needs someone to provide the why.”

Three months into her new role at IBM, Lauren is very thankful to the master program for preparing her for the cross-functional work she does. “I’ve worked with engineers, business analysts, and other creatives and the one thing the da Vinci Center did very well was prepare me for that kind of situation.” Specifically, she’s been able to be confident in her own abilities, comfortable  not knowing “all the answers,” and instead pulling on the strengths of her teammates.

Thinking back to the master program, Lauren noted an odd difference between the first and second year of the program. “I think it’s a weird thing to show someone the importance of teamwork, but to then forgo a team project the last year.” She encouraged the incoming master students to listen, explore, experiment, and play, but most importantly, to “be productive with your time around smart people.”