Celebration and Community Pitch Competition Mark Opening of Expanded Lab at UVA

15 Apr 2013
  • "This is more than just an ingeniously designed physical space," said Robert F. Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, of the newly expanded, university-wide Innovation Lab. The facility-now called the W.L. Lyons Brown III Innovation Lab (i.Lab)-celebrated its official reopening on 11 April 2013. The i.Lab embodies principles of community, collaboration, and the teaching of creativity, Bruner noted, and it "reflects how we view our role as part of the University of Virginia and the world far beyond."

    Around 250 people from across the University and the Charlottesville community convened at the i.Lab, located in Darden's Sponsors Hall, for an afternoon of speakers and activities designed to showcase the remodeled collaborative space, home to an expanded business incubator.

    Open in the past only to Darden students, the incubator now welcomes ventures from all 11 schools at the University and from the community. "It's inclusive, and it's anti-silo," said Bruner. "Students and faculty across U.Va. are generating innovations that could be the basis for high-growth companies. They need to learn whether or not their ideas can be taken to the next level. They'll be able to do this at the i.Lab."
    The 2013-2014 incubator class includes 17 ventures from five U.Va. schools and seven local businesses without ties to the University. The incubator is run by Kathryne Carr, a local venture mentor and longtime contributor to U.Va.'s innovation and start-up efforts.

    "Jefferson was a polymath," noted U.Va. president Teresa Sullivan, "so I think he would appreciate the fact that the i.Lab will bring together faculty, students and local entrepreneurs from such a vast range of disciplines and interests to collaborate on business ventures."

    "The i.Lab is just one part of our commitment to build a highly integrated innovation program," she noted. She pointed to the Open Grounds studio and the U.Va. Innovation initiative as other components of a comprehensive effort to create an ecosystem for innovation and entrepreneurship.

    "We can't nurture entrepreneurs and innovators without a robust ecosystem right here in Charlottesville," said Darden professor Michael J. Lenox, the executive director of Darden's Batten Institute, which operates the i.Lab. The original i.Lab, opened in 2010, grew out of the vision of Darden professor and former Batten Institute director Jeanne Liedtka, an expert in the application of design skills to business innovation. Through flexible classroom and prototyping areas, it was designed to promote a team-based, experiential and collaborative approach to teaching entrepreneurship and innovation.

    The remodeled facility retains those features but also includes office space for incubator ventures, meeting rooms, a "pitch room" where entrepreneurs can present their ideas, an "idea well" where they can leave notes about resources they need and those they can offer, and a coffee bar run by a local venture. "The coffee bar is the first thing you see when you enter the i.Lab," said Philippe Sommer, director of the Batten Institute's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and director of the i.Lab. "And it's perhaps the most important. Entrepreneurship is a contact sport fueled by caffeine." The i.Lab, Sommer hopes, will be a gathering place, a hub of activity and creativity where entrepreneurs can learn from one another as well as from mentors and advisors.

    "The i.Lab proves that it's possible to get things done quickly in a university setting," said W.L. Lyons Brown III (Coll '82, MBA '87), who championed the expansion project and for whom the new facility is named. In less than three months, Brown, a trustee of the Darden School Foundation, raised $1.3 million, inspiring high levels of participation from fellow trustees and 100% participation from Darden's alumni board. "Board members had a huge 'aha!' moment with this project," he said. "They immediately saw the opportunity not only to elevate Darden's profile but also to engage all of U.Va. and Charlottesville. There was tremendous energy and excitement."

    Brown, the founder of Altamar Brands, a specialty spirits business, became an entrepreneur after nearly two decades working for his family's company, the Brown-Forman Corporation. "I realized that I was at the wrong end of things," he said. "I didn't want to be sitting at the oak table at the end of the process. I wanted to be in the green slime." His experiences of the ups and downs of launching a business position him well to mentor those just starting out, he noted. Access to experienced mentors, as well as to legal and accounting advice, is a key feature of the incubator.

    Tom Skalak, VP for research at U.Va., commented that both the University and Charlottesville are at a tipping point. "The i.Lab is symbolic of a culture change-toward a culture of new-value creation," which, he noted, both the local and global economy urgently need. The new facility, he said, provides the "rocket fuel" for new ventures and could serve as a model for other regions.

    The event included presentations from current incubator businesses and innovation and design exercises led in the i.Lab classroom by Professor Liedtka and Darden professor Bidhan ("Bobby") Parmar. It concluded with a "crowdsourced" community competition, "U.Pitch.C'ville Decides," organized by the Batten Institute and the Tom Tom Founders Festival, which celebrates innovation and the arts in Charlottesville. The winner, chosen by audience members from among ten local businesses, was Kenny Schulman, whose business, Eat. Drink. Play., connects visitors to Charlottesville with locals who can share the best the region has to offer. Schulman won $5,000 and an opportunity to participate in the i.Lab's 2013-2014 incubator class.

    The second place prize of $3,000 went to Guinevere Higgins's City School Garden, which is working with teachers and students to establish gardens in local public schools. Third place, with a prize of $2,000, went to Duylam Nguyen-Ngo and Ashutosh Priyadarshy's Walkback mobile application, which uses GPS technology to connect cell phones so that friends can help ensure one another's safety when they are out at night. Honorable mention went to Susan Chambers for her proposal to open a restaurant, Jamakin' Me Crazy, featuring her family's dishes from Jamaica.

    To learn more about the i.Lab, visit: 

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