Innovation Center has vibrant director, direction
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Robert Vera got a bachelor’s in political science from Boston College and went to work for Sen. Edward Kennedy …
Then went into investment banking and became a vice president for Merrill Lynch …
Then transitioned to entrepreneur and started a pre-Fitbit workplace wellness app that was incorporated into a President’s Council on Fitness initiative …
Then became an author and speaker and wrote “A Warrior’s Faith,” an Amazon No. 1 best-seller, and developed a trademarked speaking program …
And fit in numerous other accomplishments in between, in particular, extensive work with the military community.
Who does that?
Those three words sum up why Vera is the new director of Grand Canyon University’s equally new Innovation Center. If anyone can inspire start-ups to go above and beyond the call of duty and turn “Who does that?” into “We did it!”, it’s this guy – a guy who, like GCU, survived and thrived despite the tough economic times 11 years ago.
The lesson he learned:
“You have to figure out how to do things in the worst possible time. Everything is bad news. Everything is negative. You know what? It’s rough. My kids had this horrible habit – they were young at the time, but they always wanted to eat three times a day.
“It demands that you become resourceful, humble. I always tell people, ‘This is the real world. This is how it works. The greatest ideas may not make it.’”
The Innovation Center, located in Building 66 at the 27th Avenue office complex, is GCU’s latest contribution to entrepreneurial opportunities in west Phoenix and employment opportunities for students.
The 23,000-square-foot space, which will include 33 offices and eight meeting rooms, will serve all of these purposes, some of which actually will take place in labs on the main campus:
- Incubator/accelerator (businesses in the formation stage/established businesses that need traction)
- Co-working space
- Lopes Lab maker space
- BioMed engineering and prototyping
- Cyberwarfare range
- New Business Development Center
- Technology meet-ups
- Entrepreneurial funding events
- Digital content creation
- Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality lab
The message is simple, said Dr. Randy Gibb, Dean of the Colangelo College of Business (CCOB): “Create your purpose.” And what start-ups have to do to be in the center is equally simple.
“Hopefully this becomes a training and education hub as well as a co-working space, and the only requirement is that you have to hire our students,” Gibb said. “We’re not going to charge you rent. We’re not going to make you pay to sit there. The more offices you have, the more students you need to hire.”
Or as Vera put it, “I really want to make it more of a revenue model than a real estate model. What you want to do is put an ecosystem of business excellence around them.”
Vera has made it his life’s work to reside in that ecosystem, and GCU’s mission, likewise, is to teach students how to find it along with their purpose – all while keeping their education affordable by keeping tuition frozen for 11 years. Now students will have even more opportunities to graduate with little or no debt and a brighter future.
“You can come to school here, get a job here and leave with a job,” Vera said. “The problem in education is not that the cost is high; the return on investment is high.
“If you’re going to get out with $200,000 in debt and you’re making only $35,000 a year, there’s an ROI problem, there’s not a cost problem. So the idea is to make actually your ROI at GCU by doing this and paying off your debt within a year.”
Gibb said Vera was chosen from a “very, very competitive hiring process. There were so many excellent candidates, it was difficult to narrow down to the final five.” But he’s thrilled that Vera was available.
“We’re blessed to have someone with Robert’s experience and passion on our team,” Gibb said.
Vera and his wife, Kathryn, have lived in Scottsdale for 19 years and have two children, Haylee, 16, and Matthew, 14. Soon after his arrival in the Valley, Vera helped establish the Pat Tillman Foundation – a reflection of his considerable investment in serving the military.
When he heard the story of former Navy SEAL Ryan Job, blinded by a sniper’s bullet in Iraq, he felt compelled to write about it in “A Warrior’s Faith.”
“I really enjoy writing because you have to be objective and subjective at the same time,” Vera said.
His first objectives with the Innovation Center are to “bring in companies, engage with student body to see what their ideas are, and then I’d like to get students in for internships. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in Phoenix on the west side.”
He’ll be assisted by Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor for Economics and Entrepreneurship in CCOB. Kelley noted that a spot in the Innovation Center will be among the prizes at the Canyon Challenge entrepreneurial competition, which in the 2019-20 academic year will expanded from annual to twice a year. The first one is scheduled for Dec. 6.
“My objective is to do everything possible to bring as many companies at every different stage to that facility for Robert to help scale,” said Kelley, who first came across Vera when the latter was emcee for a venture capital summit. “I think having someone with the background that Robert has is a wonderful opportunity for us to connect to parts of the community that we haven’t been connected to in the past and to help create that narrative. The fact that he has published books – best-selling books, no less – makes me hopeful that skill set can translate into the storytelling that we need to do to inspire our students and inspire the community to get engaged and perhaps bring capital, in multiple forms, to those enterprises.”
But the top priority is the greater good — for GCU students as well as the community.
“It’s living out our faith by serving. It’s access and opportunity for GCU students – that’s key,” Gibb said.
“We’re saying, ‘Here’s a conscious approach to free markets and job development and business creation. As a Christian university, this in a sense is going to become a different way to approach this start-up world.’”
It’s just a matter of finding people eager to put their ideas into motion, people willing to answer that classic entrepreneurial question:
Who does that?
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].