Friday, February 19, 2016

UVI Innovation Center to Spark Creativity and Entrepreneurship

UVIDEA club members present UVI's new 3D Printer

This spring, the University of the Virgin Islands made history with its first open house to showcase state of the art Innovation Centers.  Outfitted with computers, work tables, white boards and a 3-D printer – from which actual models or product prototypes can be digitally rendered out of biodegradable plastic – the newly established centers are located on the St. Thomas Campus and on the Albert A. Sheen campus on St. Croix.
UVI President David Hall addresses students, faculty and partners
at the official opening of UVI's innovation center

UVI President David Hall referred to the centers as “maker spaces” in which students will be encouraged to gather, brainstorm, and channel their classroom knowledge into creative endeavors with entrepreneurial potential.

“So many of the technological innovations we now take for granted were developed by real people in garages and basements and back rooms throughout the territory and the country,” says Dr. Hall.  “When you’re using something like a mobile phone app, it’s easy to forget that somebody actually thought about this.  Somebody put their energy into solving all of the problems that needed to be solved in order to make this application available and convenient to use.  We want that same energy to exist here at UVI. Our hope is that we will soon outgrow this innovation space and have to expand.”

“The Innovation Center is going to be a place where students can let their creative juices flow and know that others are there for the same reason,” says UVI Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Camille McKayle.  “It was gratifying to see the turnout at the opening and the sparkle in the eyes of those in attendance,” she said at the open house.  “Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship Association (UVIDEA) is a growing student organization, and I am sure they will consider this their new home.”

 “Investing in the progression of innovative ideas from our students will only return positive results for the university and the community as a whole,” says Daricia Wilkinson, UVIDEA club member.  She feels confident that the center will appeal to a growing number of young people as the semester unfolds. “The launch of the Innovation Center signifies the start of a new era in which Virgin Islanders will no longer be just the consumers of technological and innovative products, but also the creators.”
Leon Hughes (left) and Tim Faley (right) admire 3D
printer objects

Dr. Tim Faley, distinguished professor of Entrepreneurship and Special Assistant to the President, saw no reason why UVI should not join Stanford, MIT, the University of Michigan and other institutions that have already established thriving innovation centers. “The next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs are going to need both knowledge and know-how,” says Faley. “Knowledge can be transferred in a course setting, but developing know-how often requires hands-on experience. That experience can be acquired in experiential learning programs.”

The first such program emerged in the form of a $5 million grant from Kiril Sokoloff, the founder of the Research and Technology Park company, 13D Research (USVI) LLC.  The grant established a robust, cross-campus entrepreneurship and innovation initiative at UVI.  Under this initiative, the 13D Entrepreneurship Competition was created, in which any student who is enrolled in the university – though not necessarily full-time – can compete to win $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 in start-up capital for his or her business proposal.  

Objects rendered from 3D printer
Another business collaboration that is fostering innovation initiatives at UVI involves Leon Hughes, founder of the St. Croix-based software technology company Nearix.  He believes that Hackathons – weekend-long events in which students work around the clock to find technology-based solutions to real-world problems, mostly in the form of website development or mobile phone apps – will help to promote a culture of creative problem solving among young people in the territory.  Hughes began to sponsor hackathons on both campuses in 2015.  Cash prizes totaling $900 have been awarded for the best hack, the most innovative hack, the most impactful hack and the most sustainability focused hack.

A look inside the new Innovation Center on the
 Sheen Campus . 
The UVI Hackathons were such dynamic events that President Hall and Dr. Faley undertook to create a physical space in which the brainstorming and collaboration could go on indefinitely.  “Our center is going to function as a working laboratory in which students from different academic backgrounds can pool their talent and work toward common goals, just like they do in real companies,” says Dr. Faley.