By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“There are some really exciting things happening here,” Robert Grajewski, Executive Director of the Wond’ry at Vanderbilt University, says.
Roughly two years into his tenure, the Co-Founder of several start-ups and former venture capitalist described the facility and its programming as “the sandbox for all disciplines” at the prestigious Nashville university. The three-story, 13,000 square foot facility is home to everything from speaker series and workshops to makerspaces, interactive art exhibits and unique corporate partnerships.
“My biggest delightful surprise has been how interested, motivated, talented, intelligent and thoughtful the students are around innovation,” Grajewski said. As is the case with most universities, however, there are the silos that exist that can impede collaboration.
“The Wond’ry and its existence have tried to overcome those challenges,” he says, adding that “a lot of time is spent on those issues and building opportunities for collaboration in an effort to foster creative collisions.”
Part of the solution involves 30 to 40 workshops that are held each semester. Another component involves new initiatives that are helping to create cross-disciplinary teams and foster the spirit of collaboration.
“One of the big happenings is a $500,000 grant from the NSF (Nashville Science Foundation) to establish an I-Corps site,” Grajewski said of the award that was announced in September. “It gets you into the pipeline to have a much greater chance for SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants.”
As our readers may recall from previous articles on teknovation.biz, the NSF I-Corps program is particularly focused on encouraging more entrepreneurship and technology commercialization activities among university faculty and post-docs.
“It’s all about customer discovery,” Grajewski says in describing the process. “We are fortunate to now be one of 70 universities in the world to now be considered an I-Corps site. This is a first for Vanderbilt and a first for Nashville.”
Another significant initiative involves an innovative alliance with one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies.
“We have begun an Innovation Garage Partnership with a major Fortune 500 telecommunication company,” Grajewski said. “This is our second Innovation Garage sponsor, in addition to our efforts with Accenture who have now sponsored four projects.”
He adds that the program provides a great opportunity for corporations to explore new solutions to opportunities and obstacles that are affecting their industry, customers, or overall strategic growth objectives. From projects as diverse as Oil & Gas Well Management to Blockchain and eCommerce, corporate sponsors receive great insights while also being able to share their mission and goals with the Vanderbilt community and engage with teams of very brilliant and motivated students.
The Wond’ry also kicked-off an effort involving social innovations and equity and diversity that is led by Dominique Andersen. In the case of the first activity, the Wond’ry is focusing on issues surrounding affordable housing, including wage disparity and the creation of jobs through the urban manufacturing and maker movement. The equity, diversity and inclusion initiative is based on the goal of ensuring that all members of the Vanderbilt family feel like the Wond’ry is a place for them and a place where ideas can be brought to life regardless of race, gender, nationality, ability, or major.
“There are some really exciting things happening here,” Grajewski says. If some major grants are awarded, he’ll have even more exciting news to share in the not too distant future.