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Experiential lab customizes technology for community impact

people gathered around a table for a Social Innovation Startup Lab meeting

Social Innovation Startup Lab students collaborating with industry partners and community leaders during the spring 2020 semester at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. All photos in this article are archival images taken before the current pandemic social distancing and face-covering requirements went into effect. Photo courtesy of Andrea Cherman

March 24, 2021

Among the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, The Polytechnic School is known for its hands-on curriculum and strong network with the local industry. These strengths have proven valuable for all involved and therefore continue to take priority at the school. The Social Innovation Startup Lab, or SISL, carries that torch forward by connecting students with industry and engaging in philanthropic efforts to bring innovation to communities in need.

Established in 2019, the Social Innovation Startup Lab aims to connect students with industry to benefit the community through the responsible use of new and existing technologies. As a technological entrepreneurship and management program, the lab blends entrepreneurship, innovation and the strategic management of technology in a hands-on and experiential environment.

Technology entrepreneurship and management alumnus and Intel manager Christopher Ross and faculty adviser and technological entrepreneurship and management Lecturer Andrea Cherman developed the lab with the common goal of exposing students to real-world practices and promoting sustainability initiatives within industry while benefiting the local community in the process.

“Our mission is to focus and strengthen university, industry and community partnerships,” Cherman said. “We want to engage and connect companies, employees, faculty, students and communities in a meaningful experience while developing purposefully driven startups that provide responsible technological solutions to the community and nonprofit sectors.”

The Social Innovation Startup Lab is collaborating with the Intel Corporation and the Boeing Company this semester with the goal of engaging with local nonprofits to provide technology solutions for COVID-19 relief. Five teams, each made up of three third-and fourth-year students and three industry professionals, are working with communities across the state on the following initiatives:

  • Impacting children’s literacy in collaboration with Vello.
  • Exposing teens to STEM education in collaboration with SolarGoKarts.
  • Prevention of teen suicide in collaboration with Mesa United Way’s Younited Teen Advisory Council.
  • Impacting homelessness in collaboration with Mesa United Way.
  • Generating water conservancy solutions in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy.

Developing their solutions under the COVID-19 theme, teams are focusing their energy on security when delivering services, faster interactions and responses and how to do more with less.

Fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management student Blake Lescoe is on the Mesa United Way team. He says they are creating a system that consolidates and streamlines various resources available to homeless members of the community through one convenient tool.

“COVID-19 has caused homelessness to increase drastically, so we investigated methods to alleviate this rise,” Lescoe said. “We identified all of the programs currently offered to the homeless community and determined that resources are scattered throughout Mesa and not easily accessible. Tackling this need was quite overwhelming at first, but we have narrowed our focus to a problem that we feel, if addressed, could leverage the most change.”

Lescoe says that his team gets incredible value from Boeing and Intel professionals who bring their industry experience into the social innovation space. “I have been challenged to think differently about how I approach solving problems in our communities,” Lescoe said.

Derek Waite, a procurement agent for Boeing, sees firsthand how the Social Innovation Startup Lab is challenging students and values the opportunity to generate change in the community.

“SISL gives students the space to take things that they have learned and really apply them to make an impact,” Waite said. “Integrating the nonprofits and the corporate sponsors allows for innovative thinking and collaboration that will push these students to not only see this as a course but a chance to make a difference.”

Harmony Nelson, the director of community impact for Mesa United Way, has worked with the lab for the past two years and appreciates the opportunity to bring community issues to the forefront.

“The greater community often may not be aware of the problems facing our own friends and neighbors,” Nelson said. “Students in this program have always listened intently and kept an open mind for the clients being served and the programs working to help them.”

During the course of a semester, the teams meet weekly at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. They use Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, computer vision, drones and other technologies to conceptualize feasible solutions to community challenges. From developing a business model to designing, prototyping, pitching and iterating practice, students are immersed in an experiential learning environment in addition to their routine coursework.

“I am familiar with the corporate environment and I own two companies,” said fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management online student Sonya Flaherty. “One is a long-standing theatrical production company and another is a startup. I mention this only to point out that I have had my share of successes, failures, heartaches and lessons learned, and even with my experience, I find myself learning and growing with each week in SISL.”

In addition to working side by side with industry professionals, students are able to participate in lectures and discussions about technological entrepreneurship and social innovation led by technology entrepreneurship and management faculty, tech industry and community experts.

“We are pioneering groundbreaking social innovation methodologies at the intersection of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, social impact, emerging technologies, community engagement, industrial expertise and academic innovation,” said Intel’s Ross.

Cherman touts the program’s ability to bring entrepreneurship, technology and sustainability solutions together for a common goal.

“Firms are also able to attract top students and demonstrate sustainability initiatives within their companies,” she said. “Employees are exposed to new challenges and perspectives and gain awareness of the ethical use of technology. In addition, the community has the opportunity to work with a qualified and eager team of students and professionals who are ready to tackle their needs.”

To learn more about the Social Innovation Startup Lab, to become involved as an industry partner or to sponsor its students, please contact Jennifer Williams or call 480-727-1688.

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