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Altria boosts VCU’s da Vinci Center

From left, Georges Aguehounde, Luca Terziotti, Becky Moran, Christina Walinski, 
Samantha Testa and Ilijana Soldan work on a project at VCU’s da Vinci Center.By: JOHN REID BLACKWELL | Richmond Times-Dispatch
Published: September 17, 2012
Updated: September 17, 2012 – 9:02 PM

Virginia Commonwealth University engineering student Luca Terziotti is hoping to put his education to use designing innovative products for mountaineering and rock climbing, a passion of his.

Catherine Gellatly, a craft and material studies student and a VCU crew team member, wants to design better boating products. Samantha Testa, a business administration major, thinks she can bring innovative ideas to the hospitality industry.

All three are honing their skills at VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation, an interdisciplinary program that brings art, business and engineering students together to collaborate on projects, including solving problems for real-world businesses.

Now the da Vinci Center, established in 2007, has received a financial boost from corporate giant Altria Group Inc.

Henrico County-based Altria will donate $1.5 million to the center to help support and expand its mission of producing students who can think across disciplines and bring creative ideas and products to market.

The center “really develops students in a way that makes them attractive to any business — not just ours — because it makes them more well-rounded,” Jack Nelson, Altria’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said at an event at VCU to announce the donation Monday.

Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette maker.

The da Vinci Center has 51 students enrolled in an undergraduate product design and innovation certificate program. Ten graduate students are enrolled in a master’s of product innovation program, the first such graduate program in the United States.

“Our intent is to continue to grow the program,” said Kenneth Kahn, a professor of marketing and director of the da Vinci Center. The donation “helps us to go from good, to great, to remarkable,” he said.

Kahn said the goal of the program is to create “T-shaped individuals,” or graduates who are well-anchored in their core subjects of business, arts or engineering, but who are also able to bridge the gap and communicate effectively in other disciplines.

The donation of $300,000 a year for five years will support plans to enroll more students and buy equipment, such as a 3-D printer for the center’s product design lab.

The donation also will support a program in which VCU students help to teach local middle schoolers about science, technology, engineering and math at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Nelson said Altria made the donation because it sees the da Vinci Center as a resource. The company recruits employees heavily from VCU, but it also sees the graduate program in product innovation as an opportunity for current employees, he said.

“It is a resource for our current employees who want to enhance their skills and capability, and it is also a resource for us to recruit employees,” he said.

Testa, the business student, said the da Vinci Center program is a “vacation away from my everyday grind,” studying administration and management.

“It is where I use my brain in completely different ways, working with engineers and artists,” she said. “I am getting a chance to not only work with other people, but to think like other people.” (804) 775-8123

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