Innovation Center offers a lot, including students
By Rick Vacek
Shane Ettestad and James Carr were all set to sign a new lease agreement for expanded office space at their location in downtown Phoenix. Then the HomeKey Systems founders heard about the new Innovation Center at Grand Canyon University and took three tours.
They saw the access to resources – the cybersecurity lab, the printing labs, the maker spaces.
They saw the access to the revenue-generation lessons of entrepreneur-in-residence Kevin Youngblood, who was the one who first told them about the facility.
They saw the access to the Canyon Angels, the core of investors eager to help startups obtain the funds they need to start up.
They saw the access to other entrepreneurs who are in the same incubation stage of business development.
But most of all, they saw the access to GCU students, who are there to work and learn and grow.
It was no contest. They quickly changed their plans and became one of 25 companies that populated the Innovation Center within its first 2½ months – and employed 41 GCU students.
A requirement of the Innovation Center is that all the ventures hire GCU students in return for office space. That wasn’t just OK with Ettestad and Carr; it was a bonus.
“I love the eagerness, the energy,” Ettestad said. “Many of them have already tried small ventures on their own. We love that kind of energy and youthfulness, being older guys.”
The attraction was equally strong for students who want to become entrepreneurs themselves. The new entrepreneurship class, ENT495, meets every Wednesday morning in the same building on 27th Avenue, also the site for the weekly meetings of the Innovation, Development and Entrepreneurship Association (IDEA) Club.
The class didn’t just fill up … it has a waiting list beyond the 40 students who made it in.
“What I like so much about us being in the Innovation Center is, number one, it’s a home base,” said ENT495 teacher and IDEA Club advisor Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor for Entrepreneurship and Economics for the Colangelo College of Business. “Our members know where to go. They can get parking. It’s stability. It gives the students a stable place to be for every single meeting.
“Number two is that when the students come here to see all these companies that we’re looking at investing in, they also get to see all these companies that are out there in that pathway, raising money, tweaking their business model, constantly shifting, changing. And that, I hope, inspires them to see a path.”
Oh, it’s inspirational, all right – so inspirational that the students can’t get enough of it.
“I’m constantly thinking about it. It might be unhealthy,” senior Micah Vu said of the ENT495 class.
IDEA Club President Andrew Flowers and Vice President Connor Keene have a startup (GreatR Media) in the Innovation Center and have been spending most of their waking hours there.
“The Innovation Center is fantastic,” Flowers said. “When we show up to work, we’re not coming in with a student mentality. This is a whole new level.
“We’re right next to HomeKey every day, not only using them as motivation but just as mentors. Most of these people in here that are running those kinds of companies, they have had successful business ventures prior. We’re using their stories and insights to move the needle on our business.”
ENT495 has another benefit: When entrepreneurs from the Innovation Center gave their pitches to Canyon Angels investors at a late September event, the students from the class followed each presentation with their analysis of the company.
“It’s standard for most angel groups,” Kelley said. “But most other angel groups that aren’t attached to a student body will just have their members do it.”
The Innovation Center also has benefited the 55 investors who make up the Canyon Angels, Kelley added: “Our members now get a place to camp out. These are active people out in the investor circuit, and now they can actually be here side by side with companies they’re investing in.”
One of those investors is Dan Schulz, who visits weekly and enjoys his conversations with students. His impressions?
“Sharp,” he said. “They’re really interesting. The first thing that comes to mind is, ‘I wish I had an opportunity like this one when I was their age. What could I do or where could I be?’ I see a younger version of myself in a lot of them.”
There are other aspects that make the Innovation Center unique. There is a Bible study on Fridays and a prayer before every meeting. Its director, Robert Vera, buys the pizza for weekly lunchtime gatherings. The new occupants were so happy to be there, they bought the furniture themselves.
“We are different, not just in the Valley but in the ecosystem,” Vera said. “Relationships – that’s where your values come out. We have a really good group of people here, and I think that’s powerful. It’s helped everybody feel like they’re part of something.”
And to think that all this happened in just 60 days from its early August opening. The HomeKey guys could see the difference as soon as they got there.
“What’s important is that Robert understands that you really can’t simulate the dynamics of a real startup,” Ettestad said. “So providing that for students is great, and it’s great for us. It’s win-win.”
It’s all about the access – to ideas, to resources and to funding as well as to students. And that’s what leads to success.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].