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Incubating Entrepreneurs at UC San Diego’s Basement

It’s been over a year since Gensler helped UC San Diego transform an underutilized rehearsal studio into a thriving campus hub for burgeoning student entrepreneurs. Dubbed “the Basement” by Armin Afsahi, UC San Diego’s then chief alumni officer who sponsored the initiative, this once overlooked space now brings students, alumni and local business leaders together to nurture new enterprise and spur innovation. Gensler’s Tom Heffernan recently spoke with Gloria Negrete, the Basement’s Director of Planning and Strategic Initiatives, to find out how things are going.

Understanding the Program

Gloria describes how the Basement’s three ascending tracks offer students a pathway for developing nascent ideas into sustaining ventures. Starting in the Seeker Track, students explore entrepreneurial aspirations through the open-access programs that the Basement hosts. Moving into the Incubator Track, students form teams and apply for access to advisors and mentors to help guide business planning and development. Culminating with the Accelerator Track, student teams apply for access to advanced support in fundraising and investment. Last year was the first to see students matriculate through the whole program sequence

In an effort to encourage more cross-disciplinary team formation, especially among “unlikely” academic areas from Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, the program is now reaching out to undergraduates across the University as a way to add value to conventionally entrepreneurial disciplines in STEM by increasing diversity of thought and background among participants.

Flex space

As an experimental space, the Basement is designed to flex and adapt to the variety of activities it hosts. Modular, plug-and-play technology and moveable furniture supports team interaction during hack-a-thons, boot camps and competitions. A central riser focuses the space as a more structured venue for pitch sessions, demo days and guest speaker forums. To host industry partners who share insights on topics ranging from basic business funding to the intricacies of intellectual property rights, the space is agile, and can shift between formal presentation mode and intimate settings that provide break-away opportunities for mentoring.

As malleable as the space has been, Gloria shared that some of the core program offerings have evolved as well. Since working with student teams to assess their emergent needs, the Basement has been able to acquire new equipment for “mid-tech”-level rapid prototyping. While not at the advanced level of capability enjoyed by the academic departments and research groups, this new functionality addresses a need for maker space that isn’t spoken for by research and academics, but is available as an alternative to curricular activities.

Connecting with Alumni

When asked about the kind of space the Basement made for partners, Gloria said that what her team did not anticipate was the interest from one particular group of people—its own alumni. In the course of reaching out to their alumni community in search of mentors, coaches and advisors, the Basement uncovered a transitional need that it could be positioned to address. More recent alumni, who may not be ready to mentor students yet, are still looking for some connection to campus for support and resources to encourage their own start-ups.

Sitting right at the crossroads of academia and business, can the Basement develop programs to bridge this transitional time between student and established alumni, so the emerging entrepreneurs can continue to grow their new ventures?

Tom Heffernan Over his 25 year career, Tom has focused on design for higher education and local government, having worked with six University of California campuses, multiple California State Universities and community colleges, and nearly a dozen counties and cities throughout California. As a Firmwide Practice Area Leader in Education based in San Diego, Tom is involved in Gensler projects throughout the Southwest – from designing academic and student life buildings to developing real estate, facilities and workplace strategies for a variety of institutional clients. Tom received a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design. Contact him at Tom_Heffernan@gensler.com.