The New Wave: Innovative Learning Environments
David Broz and Meghan Webster in Academic Incubator, Academic Incubators, Dialogues with Gensler, Education Design, Education and Culture, Reimagining Learning

The Garage at Northwestern, Image: Garrett Rowland.

This post is part of our series on Academic Incubators.

Innovative learning environments have hit the mainstream in recent years - academic incubators and their ensuing culture of entrepreneurship and innovation are emerging on campuses globally. These spaces are playing a large part in the evolution of today’s education environments and have become a powerful tool for learning, collaboration and institutional student yield. Colleges and universities are competing to keep up with this trend and meet the modern student’s needs for success.

Recently the Gensler Chicago office brought together a panel of experts to explore what makes these spaces successful, what makes them distinctive, and what these environments mean for the future of education. The discussion brought together a broad cross-section of industry leaders that included

Maria Meyers, Director of the UMKC (University of Missouri Kansas City) Innovation Center and Founder of KC SourceLink, Melissa Crounse, Executive Director of The Garage at Northwestern and Todd Heiser, Principal and Design Director at Gensler and Design Lead for the much-heralded Chicago incubator space 1871, the health tech incubator Matter, as well as The Garage at Northwestern.

Maria Meyers has been at the forefront of the ‘incubation’ trend, having started working with startups and innovation culture in 2003 at UMKC Back then most people didn’t know what entrepreneurship looked like,” she said explaining that they spent a lot of time educating investors and partner organizations in order to build relationships. Under her guidance the UMKC community - the Innovation Center and KC SourceLink - serve as an aggregator of connections, support services, funding and ideation opportunities, and then build and grow businesses around them. They support this work with an enormous amount of research data that they use to build robust innovative communities. Maria is passionate about cultivating environments that support entrepreneurship by identifying, assessing, and strengthening resource networks -- putting entrepreneurs in the right place at the right time. The Center has spawned several other resource organizations to provide entrepreneurial tools.

KC SourceLink’s map provides resources and pathways to explore opportunities from inception to proof-of-concept and market intro to rollout. Image © UMKC Innovation Center

Melissa Crounse, Executive Director of The Garage, has been charged with making entrepreneurial culture flourish on the Northwestern Campus. The new 12,000-square-foot Garage is an incubator to accelerate on-campus innovation as well as integrate the University into the broader entrepreneurial community. It provides space and programming to leverage the University’s research strengths and allows students to experiment and test new ideas. The space hosts over 1,000 people monthly who participate in events, classes and work on over 60 project. Todd Heiser, Gensler Principal and Design Lead on 1871, Matter and the Garage has been intimately involved in the concept-building, planning and design of incubator spaces. He has built a body of knowledge around these spaces that spans higher education and workplace - specifically in the way design sparks creativity, encourages serendipitous encounters, and ultimately drives a culture of innovation.

Located on the 12th floor of Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart, 1871 is a co-working space, incubator and business accelerator where tech startup entrepreneurs can work, network and be mentored. Heiser shared that the concept for 1871 originated with JB Pritzker almost 10 years prior – as an entrepreneur himself, and an investor and philanthropist he sought to grow Chicago as a destination for entrepreneurship. Before beginning design, the Gensler team did extensive visioning within the community it would serve and synthesized the information gathered. What was created was an ecosystem of vibrant culture of thinkers, doers, makers and leaders – one that has been ranked the #1 incubator in the nation.

Matter takes pride in being a community of healthcare innovators aspiring to heroic change, embracing collaboration and with a focus on doing things that Matter. Heiser believes that ‘chance favors the connected mind.’ (Steven Johnson) - a modern twist on Louis Pasteur’s saying, ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’

Gensler’s work in Academic Incubators over the past few years has yielded not only great design, but a robust ongoing conversation around the future of innovation spaces that explore the connections between educational and workplace environments. The panel focused on a few key themes: building community, measuring success and challenges, infrastructure and scaling.

Gensler designed Matter an innovation space for healthcare entrepreneurs located in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Image: Garrett Rowland.

Building Community

The concept that people matter as much, if not more than space was a consistent theme. Great design entails creating spaces that draw you in; functionality is a key to viability and attractiveness to students – but how you activate the people within a space is paramount. Further, the dialogue stressed how crucial diversity is to building community – of people, skills, knowledge and ideas. Community and the cross pollination of groups and interests lead to the most dynamic results.

The Garage was built as a 24/7 space and Melissa Crounse noted that many users are night owls whose activity picks up in the evenings after classes. Crounse also noted that that the first community one builds in a space dictates what it will become. She continues to work towards creating an environment where students cane come together to test their ideas and explore possibilities. She hosts weekly ‘family dinners’ where campus users gather to discuss ideas and make connections. As users are at different stages in the process, such gatherings provide opportunities for peer support: “Incubators enabling you to learn from someone one step ahead while helping someone one step behind.”

Measuring Success

Because these spaces are still somewhat of a new phenomenon, there is a drive to measure their success. How is that done? Todd Heiser suggests that these spaces are not work or home, but are a ‘third space,’ one akin to a favorite coffee shop or local hang-out – spaces where people love to be because they are inspired, motivated and challenged by the work happening around them. To measure this means different things in different places.

Melissa Crounse wants the Garage to be a place to try new things with the freedom to fail within the safety of support system. While it is exciting when business ideas come to fruition, ultimately not every single venture will succeed and not every company launched will secure funding. The metrics of how many people are using a space, how often and the success rate of projects is of course key, and helps the network understand need and availability. Most crucial though are the entrepreneurial skill sets that emerge - critical thinking, creative problem solving, and collaborative teamwork. These tools are crucial to today’s professional environments and align students with the shifting needs of the current workplace. At UMKC the majority of the entrepreneurial ventures get their funding independently from the University from outside organizations. Success is about optimizing networks so that those opportunities are made available. The organization (what org?) studies who is getting funding and where it’s coming from, how corporations are participating, how the ecosystems are developed and communities are being built.

They have identified 6 essential needs for creating strong networks:
  1. Access to capital
  2. Corporate engagement in entrepreneurial endeavors
  3. A strong pipeline of ideas and innovation coming out of local research institutions
  4. Talent – recruiting and retention
  5. Strong tools for storytelling
  6. Good professional resources that are easy to access

As these innovative spaces become more established what is the potential for scalability? Does this just mean more resources and more spaces? For Maria Meyers of UMKC – scalability has been part of the long-term strategy from the beginning. SourceLink was established in 2003 - there were lots of resources all doing similar things, but entrepreneurs found it hard to find them and the investors found it hard to find the right businesses and start-ups to focus on. Working alongside students, UMKC created a tool called Resource Navigator- a tool for entrepreneurs and investors to connect to find the resources and partnership possibilities they need - that is the foundation for much of what they do. Other cities came to them with similar problems and they helped expand the SourceLink model to Missouri, Baltimore, Iowa and in the near future Puerto Rico. The Resource Navigator is being used in Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Denver, and Fort Worth and is reaching other entrepreneurial communities nation-wide.

Todd Heiser and the Gensler team found it necessary to consider the design of scalable spaces. They understood that the teams occupying these spaces would start in twos, fours and sixes - people introduce others to the space and the dynamic grows organically. This will create a series of pressure points – beyond 6 people one can’t use a shared conference rooms – but one still wants to keep the entrepreneurial culture and feeling which feeds and propels the first inhabitants of a given space, and sets a tone for their future. As a result, the space is design to expand and contract as needed.

At the Garage Crounse foresees the need for more space in the future – at the moment it is at capacity. There almost forty percent of the student groups focused on the production of a product – so space becomes a hot commodity. Melissa noted that she thinks it is a uniquely Midwestern characteristic that so many of these ideas are product related – born out of culture rich in industrial history.

We continue to explore what innovation truly means, in these spaces - considering how these tools and skills translate to younger students, and how environments can be created where risk is celebrated. It is important to support designing with passion first and foremost while providing the tools and teaching to make those ideas a reality: encourage students to look for interesting problems and ideas and build excitement around that is essential. John Wooden said, “Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.”

David Broz co-leads Gensler’s education and culture practice. He uses a research-based approach to design educational environments in response to today’s digital-native students. His conversations with administrators, professors, and futurists have led him to publish several studies that show how space can support learning and transform the overall campus experience. Contact him at
Meghan Webster is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at
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