The University of Georgia’s new hub for innovation is almost open for business. The Spring Street Building, just south of Broad Street near downtown Athens, is undergoing renovation and will open in January as UGA’s Innovation Hub, albeit with limited activity because of the pandemic. Once the facility is fully operational, as public health conditions allow, the new Innovation Hub will host UGA startup venture efforts and experiential learning activities, and it will be the university’s front door for industry engagement.
The opening of the Innovation Hub marks the next stage of UGA’s Innovation District initiative, a coordinated effort to expand the university’s economic impact through entrepreneurship, research commercialization and partnerships with the community and industries.
The Delta Air Lines Foundation is supporting the Innovation Hub with a $5 million commitment to complete the building’s renovation and to launch the Student Industry Fellows Program, a new initiative that pairs interdisciplinary student teams with corporate partners to solve real-world challenges.
“We are grateful to The Delta Air Lines Foundation for their generous support of this important next step in the development of UGA’s Innovation District,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead.
The building is furnished with a large, flexible open space for meetings and events, offices for UGA startup ventures, a makerspace, and meeting rooms for the kind of events and individual support that have helped innovation at UGA take off.
“Innovation at UGA now starts at Spring Street,” said Kyle Tschepikow, UGA’s director for strategy and innovation. “The Innovation Hub is a space for learning, for working and doing, and for making and creating.”
The new space will ultimately expand the university’s community impact, said Ian Biggs, the senior associate director for UGA startups.
For years, Biggs and other staff at UGA’s Innovation Gateway have worked closely with faculty to translate research discoveries into products with real-world impact. Through programs like I-Corps and Startup 101, that team has helped bring the university to national prominence as a top-five university in bringing new products to market for six straight years.
And Biggs believes the university is just getting started.
Even as the COVID- 19 pandemic renders January a “soft opening” for the Innovation Hub with limited operations, Biggs says it still gives more space for programs that can shepherd faculty through the stages of becoming entrepreneurs.
And he thinks the building’s ambiance—what Biggs calls a “gritty” space with an exposed wood-beam ceiling and plenty of natural light to complement giant display screens, 3D printers and video production equipment—will be an inviting space for faculty, students and corporate partners alike.
“This is going to be a very different kind of place from anywhere else at the university,” Biggs said. “Anyone can come here with any idea, and we can help it move forward.”
Partnering with industry
Students will be among the first to enjoy the newly renovated space. This spring, the building will host the first course in the Student Industry Fellows program, a new experiential learning opportunity that prepares students to collaborate with businesses on research and development.
And while students will be learning how to work with industry partners, the Innovation Hub will also be the university’s front door for company representatives looking to collaborate with UGA faculty and students.
“Our industry partners value the opportunity to work side-by-side with our faculty and students – and the Innovation Hub will provide the perfect venue for that direct connection,” said Crystal Leach, UGA’s director of industry collaborations. “The ability to bring together so many aspects of our innovation ecosystem in a single place will be a powerful tool in demonstrating the many ways we can provide value to potential corporate partners.”
WATCH VIDEO: Learn more about the search for the town spring.
Until recently, the Spring Street Building, formerly called the Business Services Annex, sat unassumingly near North Campus as a white-painted brick structure. But the building has history. The Cofer Seed Co. erected the building in the 1940s as a warehouse and processing facility. UGA acquired it in the 1960s and used it for various purposes over the years. But it’s what lies under the building that might be the most fascinating.
During a historic inspection of the building, archeologists discovered beneath the floor part of the Town Spring, the source of water that was a major factor in deciding where the University of Georgia would be located more than 200 years ago.
Tschepikow believes that makes this a fitting location for UGA’s innovation efforts.
“Symbolically, a spring represents the start of something new, of creation,” said Tschepikow. “It also represents progress and growth. The Innovation Hub embodies the very same ideas, and we are thrilled that this special building will forever be associated with such an important part of the university’s history.”