Two years after opening Lassonde Studios – a breakthrough entrepreneurial education building – the University of Utah has quintupled the number of student-led startups on campus, bolstered its national undergraduate and graduate program rankings, increased student engagement, enrollment, scholarships and funding. A success by numerous measures, Lassonde Studios has also earned honors and/or media coverages from SXSWedu, ACUI, Fast Company, the New York Times, Business Insider, Bloomberg and more.
Troy D’Ambrosio, Assistant Dean and Executive Director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, recently took time to chat with us about the building, the companies it’s generating, and what it means for education moving forward.
With four floors of student housing and an entrepreneurial hangar space all under the same roof, Lassonde Studios is an entirely new type of building. Can you walk us through how your team found a vision for this breakthrough learning space?
We’re a state university, so there’s a state process that we go through when building a new project. We initiated that process, and they kind of jumped the gun on, “This is what the building is supposed to be like.” We weren’t really happy with that. We were like, “You’ve already figured out what you want this to be before we’ve even really thought about it?”
From there, we hired a consultant to go out and look at different spaces. My initial thought was we were going to find something that would be pretty close to what we wanted to do, and as we got into it, we really found out that wasn’t the case. What came out of that initial process was a couple of things: we established where we were as a program, what we aspired to be, where we hoped to go with the program and how a physical facility could help us get there.
We also created a vocabulary around the building, and when we started working with Mehrdad Yazdani and their team, we were able to identify what the DNA of the building was, and then we took the DNA and put it into a physical structure. We did student workshops and had students putting stickers on equipment and furniture, etc. Often you do those studies and they just go on the shelf, but in this case, I can walk you around and show you almost everything in the building that is there today that came from those workshops. It wasn’t just an exercise, it led to the creation of the building.
We often jump to the numerical success of Lassonde Studios – quintupling student-led startups, etc. – but what types of individual companies are being started at Lassonde Studios?
The individual companies and products and the students generating them, that’s my favorite piece to talk about it. We have most of their stories captured on our blog and in our annual reports, but here are a few great stories.
- ESHOP Tanzania: In Tanzania, there is little industry so they must import electronics and supplies, but there is little distribution infrastructure so companies like Amazon and eBay don’t operate there. Bonaventure Mhonda launched an e-commerce platform and distribution network that could work in Tanzania while at Lassonde Studios. He now lives in Dar es Salaam – the New York City of Tanzania – and is growing that business.
- ColoClean: After learning that 25% of colonoscopy patients don’t complete the proper prep and still show up for the procedure with organic material in their colon, biomedical engineering student Tobi Yoon created ColoClean. The colonoscopy prep kit comes with anti-nausea medical, Miralax-type powder that has been condensed into pills and a colonoscopy-friendly cookbook.
- Boundary: Cavin Nicholson came back to study at Lassonde Studios after already starting and selling a previous company. Back at Lassonde, he launched Boundary, a company focused on creating technically innovative and sustainable backpacks and similar outdoor gear. He raised over $600,000 on Kickstarter to help fuel the company.
There are so many great and inspiring stories, it’s hard to pick just a few. I really encourage those interested to read our blog.
This building responds to shifts in students’ learning preferences and increased interest in entrepreneurship – can you talk about those changes and how Lassonde Studios strategically addresses them?
We have found that students are becoming much more entrepreneurial. Students from across campus are coming up with new ideas for products and services, and they want to develop them and see how far they can take it. We serve this trend by helping students in a wide variety of ways to prototype and test their idea and then bring it to market.
While students are working on an entrepreneurial project, they want easy access to real-time learning. They want immediate access to the skills and tools they need to bring it to the next level. We are fulfilling this desire by offering many programs that are accessible to students on a monthly, weekly or daily basis.
At Lassonde Studios, students can learn about prototyping tools and build their product any day of the week. We offer monthly seed grants to help students reach a defined milestone. We also have regular workshops and mentor hours so students can gain the skills they need to be successful.
Just as this building responds to change, you know more change is coming to education. How did you equip Lassonde Studios to respond to future change?
Lassonde Studios embraces flexibility, adaptability and creative change on numerous fronts. For students living here, the 24/7 nature of the building empowers them to act on their creative ideas at any moment, be it 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. Moreover, any student using the building is able to use the entrepreneurial hangar as they see fit. We don’t have rules that stifle innovation, if students can hack the space or use different tools in new ways, that’s the whole purpose of the building. Space itself is a tool to advance their companies, products and ideas.
From an infrastructure design standpoint, the building is also designed on a flexible grid system that will allow it to evolve and adapt to changes in technology, student needs and more over time. We know the building will need to operate and function differently five, 10 and 20 years into the future – it’s ready to do so.
We’ve talked a decent amount about the building, but what’s the secret ingredient making your program and its students so successful?
In my opinion, the secret ingredient is the diversity of ideas the building welcomes. Students from any class (freshman through graduate student) and discipline are welcome to live and learn here. Many of the companies and products we’ve seen students launch were created from the collision of ideas from disparate industries or fields. People talk a lot about the need to break down silos, well, there are no silos at Lassonde Studios and that’s making such a huge difference.