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Northwestern opens doors to innovation incubator

The Garage brings students together across disciplines to develop bold business ideas

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Approximately 200 people gathered June 16 as Northwestern University officially opened the doors of The Garage, an incubator of ideas that will bring together students from every area of the University to explore innovation and entrepreneurship. And yes, the new cross-disciplinary space is housed in a real garage on the Evanston campus. 

The Garage is a 24/7 hub where ideas, not companies, will be built, with a focus on a unique educational experience -- but where the right idea could eventually lead to a startup. High-quality mentorships, programming and resources will help Northwestern students develop and accelerate ideas.

RELATED STORY: Student Startups Featured at Opening Reception

University trustees and top administrators, donors, alumni, entrepreneurial students and other supporters celebrated The Garage’s dedication Tuesday. In a nod to a traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony, supporters cut yellow construction site-like tape, while Chicago entrepreneur and alumnus Rishi Shah ceremonially lifted the space’s garage-style doors. The Garage is located on the second floor of a recently built parking garage on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

President Morton Schapiro told the purple-clad crowd, gathered in one of the new classroom spaces, that The Garage builds on Northwestern’s tradition of success in pioneering innovation and discovery and its emphasis on left brain-right brain thinking.

“Northwestern is about entrepreneurs,” President Schapiro said about the culture that has blossomed at the University in the last decade, citing popular programs such as the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice in the Kellogg School of Management. “We have a lot of programs, but what we never had before this was the space. Now we have this absolutely magnificent space.”

In thanking the many people who made The Garage a reality, he singled out Alicia Löffler, executive director of Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO), for her “perseverance and brilliance.” Löffler, who stood as President Schapiro and others applauded, stressed earlier that The Garage will be open to all students and provide an incredible coaching space where they can learn the importance of failure on the way to success.

President Schapiro emphasized the important role The Garage will play in Northwestern’s strategic goal of integrating learning both inside and outside the classroom. “I can’t wait to visit and see all the magic that is taking place here,” he said.

The 11,000 square feet of flexible space will allow the University’s greatest innovation and entrepreneurship assets -- its students, across all disciplines -- to congregate, collaborate and create under one roof. Mentors from Northwestern and around the world and a special partnership with Chicago incubator 1871 will connect students to talent and opportunities off campus.

Prior to the program of remarks, invited guests explored the bright new space, which includes two larger spaces for workshops and classes, a prototyping area, a 3-D printer for testing ideas, two high-tech boards for visual collaboration, an open-plan kitchen, flexible meeting space, a large lounge space, privacy booths and offices. 

Others speaking at the event were Peter J. Barris and Patrick G. Ryan Jr., both trustees and alumni of Northwestern who were critical to The Garage’s creation, and Shah, who founded ContextMedia Inc. while a Northwestern student.

Barris, chair of the Board of Trustees’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee, explained how a number of years ago he and his committee members noticed the large amount of innovation happening among the younger generation, especially in Evanston.

“When we really looked at the serious entrepreneurial activity that was happening organically, it was amazing to us,” he said. “We went to work on helping to create an environment that fosters this activity, that brings out the best of it. We created a set of initiatives. The first and most important initiative was the creation of space.”

The Garage was the result, said Barris, managing general partner of New Enterprise Associates. He then recognized the “people who got this rolling,” lead donors to The Garage, including Ryan, Michael W. Ferro Jr., Nan Trienens Kaehler, and Valerie Jo and Mark A. Friedman. 

Barris also singled out J.B. Pritzker, managing partner of Pritzker Group and a Northwestern trustee, and double alumnus Howard A. Tullman, CEO of 1871, who were in the audience, citing the major roles they’ve played cultivating the entrepreneurial community in Chicago.

Also integral to The Garage project was Chris Galvin, University trustee, who made a significant early gift and led the project’s fundraising efforts, along with other members of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee.

Gifts to The Garage count toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, a $3.75 billion University-wide fundraising effort announced in March 2014. The money raised will help realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidify the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities.

Ryan, founder and CEO of INCISENT Labs Corp., noted that the University’s interdisciplinary approach allows people to work more easily at the intersections, where innovative solutions happen.

“The Garage is a place where you can think about the project you worked on, the interesting idea, and say, could we make this a company?” Ryan said. “Most people hear that and say, ‘Oh, make money.’ But most great, if not all, entrepreneurs are missionaries, not mercenaries. They want to figure out how to change the world, and that idea of changing the world is what this is about.”

Quoting friend and Northwestern alumnus Scott Page, author of a book about the diversity of ideas, Ryan said, “The greatest innovations and solutions to the most complex problems come from people who bring different experiences and different perspectives.”

Shah, the young entrepreneur, said he got “chills” walking through The Garage’s space, knowing what its programs, resources and connections can mean to today’s student entrepreneurs.

“I can honestly tell you that we wouldn’t have a company had it not been for Northwestern,” Shah said of ContextMedia, a fast-growing, health-information company. “Our company really got off the ground from Northwestern and its community, so it is extraordinary to see this translate into The Garage now.”

Shah founded ContextMedia with Shradha Agarwal when they were undergraduates; he was in the School of Education and Social Policy, and she was studying journalism in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Not having a space like The Garage, they worked out of Agarwal’s dorm room. 

“The Garage has the ability to add value to the student experience but also to be transformative to Chicago, to the broader ecosystem here and ultimately to the trajectory of Northwestern itself,” Shah said.

That connection to the entrepreneurial world outside Northwestern is critical to the mission of The Garage, INVO director Löffler said.

The Garage’s partnership with 1871, an incubator for digital startups in Chicago, will provide access to special opportunities, such as mentors and internships, and facilitate the flow and retention of Northwestern startups in Chicago, she said. Ideas that begin and mature in The Garage could graduate to 1871 or another business incubator.

Other key components of The Garage include:

  • Open to all Northwestern students, undergraduate and graduate, in any discipline
  • Academic programs held will include interdisciplinary classes, which tackle problems in a variety of fields
  • Centrally located and accessible
  • Students will have access to mentors, including alumni, from around the globe

Programs will include: 

  • The resident, or ventures, program will be the signature program of The Garage; selected students will go through a quarter-long personalized boot-camp to move ventures forward toward market; residents will have access to the space 24/7
  • Non-resident programs, such as classes, team meetings, workshops, seminars, mentoring and coaching, special speakers and social events

Löffler echoed Ryan’s comments about innovation. “The Garage will bring together a community of like-minded students and alumni bonded by the common passion for building world-changing ventures,” she said. “The impact The Garage and its programs will have on the student experience will be tremendous.”

Also on hand at The Garage opening were four entrepreneurial student workgroups illustrating the diversity of innovative ideas, from a driverless car system to consumer products, coming from Northwestern’s student population.

Current students and a few recent graduates with the workgroups presented their projects, discussed their experiences of taking an idea to an actual product and answered questions from guests. The companies represented were sharEd, Luna Lights, Pvmnt and MDAR Technologies. sharEd will be starting this week at The Garage as one of the resident venture programs.

An executive director for The Garage is expected to be named by the end of the summer.

The Garage was designed by Gensler, the architecture firm that also designed 1871.

More information is available on The Garage’s website.