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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Broderick Announces Formation of the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship

By Harry Minium

Old Dominion University President John R. Broderick's announcement of the formation of the Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Wednesday's State of the University address was the culmination of an effort that began in late 2017 to consolidate the school's entrepreneurial efforts.

"We were really not synergizing all of the energy and resources we had," said Nancy L. Grden, executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. "That's why President Broderick said we've got to do a better job."

Grden led a study of how to better organize the University's entrepreneurial activities. Her group found that ODU was missing opportunities to help students and businesses succeed because there was no single entity in charge of entrepreneurship.

"We had no structure for commercializing anything like Pulse," she said.

By that she meant the San Diego-based Pulse Biosciences, which was formed, with ODU as a part-owner, last year to capitalize on breakthroughs in research done by professors in the Frank Reidy Research Center for Biolectrics.

ODU commercialized nearly $42 million from the research, which resonated in a big way in the high-tech and medical communities. It was by far the largest commercialization deal in the school's history and the biggest in the Commonwealth in 2017.

Techtransfercentral.com, an online publication, praised ODU for being "gutsy" in the way the deal was structured.

Broderick praised more than a dozen professors for their pathfinding work in showing that electric pulses could be a breakthrough cancer treatment. But he also saw holes in the process of commercializing their discoveries.

So did Chip Filer, a longtime ODU economics professor who has been at the center of trying to make the University a leader in building Hampton Roads' economy.

"What we went through to get that Pulse deal was painful," Filer said. "President Broderick's point at the end of that was, 'Did it have to be that hard?'

"And the answer is it didn't have to be that hard."

The Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship will bring together all efforts to promote entrepreneurship, including the Strome Entrepreneurial Center and Center for Enterprise Innovation.

Filer will lead the new Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Grden will continue to head Strome and the Innovation Center in Norfolk and will work closely with Filer. So will Marty Kaszubowski, who sponsored entrepreneurship programs under the former Center for Enterprise Innovation.

"We want to move the needle in the region," Grden said. "We want small companies that don't have large research labs to know that we're here to help them."

It wasn't just the Pulse deal that spurred action. When the Commonwealth announced the Go Virginia project, which awards grants to jump-start local businesses, ODU found itself unprepared.

"We had all of these faculty members wanting to go after Go Virginia grants," Filer said. "But we had no process. It was the wild, wild west."

That's not to say that ODU wasn't and isn't doing great things.

Strome was established in 2014 as the result of an $11 million gift from ODU alumnus Mark Strome, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. It opened to provide a place for students to take creative ideas and turn them into businesses.

The Center for Enterprise Innovation (CEI), which will now become part of the new Institute, was formed at about the same time to connect local entrepreneurs with a variety of resources to help them establish new businesses and expand existing ones.

In many cases, the several programs formerly under the CEI resulted in opportunities for ODU faculty and staff to work more closely with local startups and growing businesses.

Strome and the Innovation Center have many success stories.

For example, one of the Institute's programs was designed to encourage companies that depend solely on defense contracts to explore diversifying. The program team worked directly with existing defense and NASA contractors to form new companies and pursue contracts from local businesses such as Dollar Tree and Sentara. Regional leaders agree that Hampton Roads is too reliant on defense dollars.

"Some have done it and some haven't," he said. "That's their decision to make. But we're here to help them if they want to evolve."

ODU has since opened its downtown Innovation Center, in partnership with the city, and has established a working space in Chesapeake where the new Institute's staff can work with that city's entrepreneurs and business owners without them having to make the trip to campus. A similar space is planned in Newport News and, according to Kaszubowski, "we'd like to have a presence in as many Hampton Roads cities and counties as will have us!"

The downtown Innovation Center has an open-door policy. If you're a businessperson and have an idea, a question or just need help, ODU employees and consultants will provide advice and assistance.

ODU alumnus Mike Beyrodt's success story came from the combined efforts of the Strome and Innovation centers. He was on a snowboarding trip with some buddies four years ago when they got stranded and huddled together in a tent in minus 18 degree weather.

No one could figure out how to start a fire in cold, snowy weather.

Working in his garage, with materials he purchased from a hardware store, Beyrodt figured out a solution that is now on shelves of outdoor stores around the country.

He invented a small box that you anchor to a piece of wood, pull a string and - presto - a fire starts that will burn even wet logs. No matches needed.

Three years ago he walked into the Strome center, Grden said, "like a classic student, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and flip flops. He told us he didn't think he could get a patent.

"I told him, 'actually, you can,' and we worked with him."

ODU helped him get a patent and introduced him to an investor. He formed a company, started selling his Pull Start Fire boxes and recently quit his job as an engineer to run the business full-time.

He set up shop in Chesapeake, where he has 10 employees.

"It's growing new businesses that creates jobs," Kaszubowski said, "and that's what we're all about."

Filer wants the business community to know that ODU is here to help them.

"We're not just studying entrepreneurship or promoting it," he said. "We're actually doing it."

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