By Katy Spence
Something new is brewing at the University of Montana, though some pieces might look familiar during a walkthrough of a space dubbed the Innovation Factory on the second floor of the University Center: A tailgate-turned-stereo, a repurposed monitor array from the geography department, vinyl sign letters from Home Resource.
“This whole room has been repurposed and renewed, which is a real fundamental part of innovation,” Elizabeth Dove, UM art professor and Innovation Factory co-director, said. “It’s so frequent that people can make that association of innovation as being tech and being ‘the new’ instead of being a creative reuse and renewal and a reimagining of what is.”
The Innovation Factory is the brain-child of Scott Whittenburg, Vice President for Research and Creative Scholarship at UM. It’s intended to be a gathering place for entrepreneurs and creatives to meet, collaborate, and take action. With elements of a makerspace, business incubator, and co-working space, the Innovation Factory provides all the elements needed for innovators to develop a big idea and turn it into reality.
The space will officially open on November 8, and Missoula Mayor John Engen will emcee an opening celebration from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the UC Ballroom, which will also feature an interactive panel of Missoula leaders. The event will kick off 30 Days of Innovation, a series of event inviting students, faculty, and community members to create, collaborate, and collide in the Innovation Factory, on campus, and in the community.
Brad Allen, UM sculpture professor and co-director, said the Innovation Factory can help students from different majors cross paths in ways they might not have before.
“Maybe a graduate student in ecology builds out an environment with the help of an art student that leads to a side business that’s run through [the Blackstone LaunchPad],” Allen said.
Located in the former University Bookstore warehouse space, the Innovation Factory team has removed most interior walls and enclosed the environment in glass. Dove said this is a concerted effort to be transparent and interactive with the larger community.
The Innovation Factory is composed of several spaces. The large, open room filled with whiteboards, re-configurable furniture, and a monitor array can be used for meeting or working. In the corner is a Tinkerspace meant to help users explore “three dimensional opportunities,” Allen said. Any time the Innovation Factory is open, users can utilize 3D printers, scanners, sewing machines, and more to conduct research or cultivate creativity in the Tinkerspace.
Housed in a separate room is the Worklab, an industrial makerspace which features a large-scale laser cutter, sticker maker, traditional tools, and various printers. Users will be able to fabricate using large materials like wood and metal in the safety of this space, and Allen hopes to add a larger 3D printer that can print full-sized furniture. Allen foresees this space as crucial to entrepreneurs, who can have an idea for a product and make a prototype with a team all in one place.
A small kitchen and library dubbed “Digest” sits off the Worklab for people to eat, meet, and relax. Dove and Allen anticipate that users and guest designers may also host small presentations and exhibits.
UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad, which provides guidance and resources to UM student, faculty, and alumni entrepreneurs, is already housed in the co-working space, a more traditional office setting with workspaces and a meeting room. LaunchPad Director Paul Gladen said the new space “feels like home.”
“We’re super excited to be in the Innovation Factory,” Gladen said.”The LaunchPad is helping students explore entrepreneurship as a viable career path and, for me, innovation is frequently the front end of entrepreneurship. It’s about innovating, creating, designing, testing, and this is a space to encourage that.”
Gladen added that the interdisciplinary focus, and community and cross-campus partnerships that the Innovation Factory plans to foster are key to the LaunchPad’s own mission.
One manifestation of this goal is the new door to the adjacent UM Game Room. Allen said it’s not only a connection to relaxation and recreation, but a symbol of their partnership with the newly-formed UM Esports program and forthcoming game design and interactive media degree tracks through the School of Media Arts.
“It’s going to be, I think, a significant recruitment opportunity as we’re the first institution in Montana that’s actually dealing with games, that has developed a game design degree,” Dove said. “It should be online for next year.”
Innovation Factory interns, or IFterns, are working with the campus Esports team to research and design a gaming arena in the UC Game Room where the players can train. IFterns will also work on projects like partnering with spectrUM and UM faculty to create interactive displays and inviting area entrepreneurs to speak to student groups.
The Innovation Factory is also pushing forward a customizable 12-credit certificate to promote interdisciplinary studies and innovation across campus. Students will be able to customize a track of various related courses with different emphases, such as a STEM track or Non-Profit track. The Innovation Certificate will culminate in a digital portfolio and creative collaboration capstone classes.
As the Innovation Factory continues to develop and grow, it will offer tours, open Friday workshops, demonstrations, guest artists and entrepreneurs, and more. But most importantly, it will challenge all who enter to stretch and grow in new ways, even those who work within it.
“I’m trading my sense of expertise here for a sense of possibility,” Dove said. “That is uncomfortable, to say the least, and we know that we’re doing it while we’re asking students to do the same thing.”
About the Author: Katy Spence is the Communications Director for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and has an Environmental Journalism Master’s Degree from the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of highly-engaged high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit MTHighTech.org or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.