From Innovation Ambition to Innovation Capacity- The Wond’ry Anchors a Vibrant University Innovation Ecosystem

The Wond’ry, Vanderbilt University’s center for innovation, serves as a catalyst for efforts to build and strengthen innovation capacity in the region. The Wond’ry provides space, mentorship, programming and other resources designed to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration among students, faculty, staff, and alumni from across all parts of Vanderbilt and from all of the other universities in the region as well.

The Wond’ry has something for anyone interested in innovation. This includes workshops, speakers, hackathons and pitch events, along with innovation summits, training programs and corporate partnerships. From engineers to scientists to humanists, from entrepreneurs to artists to changemakers of all kinds, the Wond’ry is the primary point of connection for those who want to learn an innovation process, to develop creative confidence, and to use their talents to make real their ideas for bringing about positive change.

Our name “Wond’ry” is a contraction of the words Wonder and Foundry. This represents the foundation for what we are and how we will evolve. When people can come to a place that activates wonder and curiosity, combined with the expectation that ideas must be forged and brought to life in order to provide value in the world, truly great innovation can happen and the changemakers themselves are changed.

The vision for what would become the Wond’ry started with a groundswell of interest from alums and students to have one of these innovation or entrepreneurship centers’ that were sprouting up at institutions across the country. A team from Vanderbilt visited centers of all types through a wide range of geographies to understand what they offered, how they were structured, what was working, and what was not. These ideas and insights were used to craft a proposal for a new type of innovation center, not situated within one college or school, and built upon the belief that innovation is for all and this would be where Vanderbilt could shine.

Three years later, a new building was completed and the Wond’ry officially opened in November of 2016.

Our Unique Approach- Innovation for All:
Uniquely positioned outside of any one school or college, the Wond’ry serves faculty, students, staff, and alums from all academic disciplines from Vanderbilt, as well as the surrounding colleges and universities throughout the region. Though the center remains grounded in its teaching of the innovation and design process, programming and resources evolve each year to serve emerging interests of this audience.

The Wond’ry is the front door to innovation at Vanderbilt University. Its primary location in the beautiful three-story Innovation Pavilion adjacent to the Engineering and Science Building is located in the heart of Vanderbilt’s 340-acre campus. This LEED Gold Certified building with its multicolored glass walls, modern furniture, and ample sunlight is designed to put innovation on display so it can inspire interdisciplinary audiences to create, make, explore, and learn processes to bring ideas into the world where they can have an impact on society. In this building, the magic doesn’t happen behind closed doors. On any given day, a visitor could see someone testing a new exo-suit, writing code for an autonomous vehicle, designing clothing to relieve anxiety, working alongside a nonprofit to develop a new solution, or creating a commercialization plan for a new venture.

Last year, the Wond’ry opened a second location, Wond’ry Launch to support the incubation of new ventures and give them an opportunity to grow and plant roots in the Nashville community. With its full continuum of innovation supports, the Wond’ry truly is a space for creative collisions and a space designed to inspire.

The Wondry’s mission comes to life through the activities organized in four main practice areas- Social Innovation, Making, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation and Design Research. The term practice area gives participants permission to practice and not feel like they must know how to do something or be instantly good at it.

Social Innovation:
The Social Innovation practice area prepares a new generation of social changemakers to challenge the status quo of social and environmental injustice using the frameworks of equity centered design and systems thinking. Societal issues are complex and often interconnected. This means that there are no silver bullet solutions or simple fixes. The Social Innovation practice area equips students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners to be social innovators who understand the root causes and effects of social and environmental challenges and co-create opportunities to support transformational benefitting our communities and environments. This social innovation activity leads to new products, processes, programs, business ventures, partnerships, or other innovations that help positively transform routines, resource access, mental models, power inequities or values that hold the most complete societal challenges in place.

Participants learn to collaborate with diverse stakeholders to understand the problems they care about through multiple lenses to design and implement meaningful innovations for social change through the Wond’ry’s social innovation programs.

Map the System: students learn to use a holistic, system approach to understand and help solve complex social and environmental challenges. Working in teams, students analyze why a problem exists in order to identify levers of change that may support resolution of the problem.

Social Changemakers: this program engages interdisciplinary teams to use human-centered design to develop a prototype of a service innovation for a local nonprofit, social enterprise, or public office. The program is designed to offer students experiential learning opportunities related to social impact while community partners benefit by accessing talented, visionary students who are committed to social good.

Social Innovation Bootcamp: this 5-week fast track program gives participants the opportunity to explore social innovation and introduce its landscape from design thinking to field application. Topics include finding your why, equity-centered design thinking, career pathways, and systems thinking.

Climate Innovation Accelerator: this 10-week, project-based, cohort journey allows student teams to serve as consultants to identify, ideate, and scope a climate-related innovation for minority-owned nonprofits or small business owners with the guidance of a corporate mentor and Wond’ry instructors. Each cohort participant will leave with actionable insights for project implementation.

The Entrepreneurship practice area at the Wond’ry supports aspiring university-affiliated entrepreneurs through programming, mentorship, and microgrant funding. Beginning with the earliest stages of an idea’s development, the Wond’ry provides a continuum of entrepreneurial supports that empower participants with an evidence-based process for idea evaluation and business model development. Whether a participant chooses to start a new venture or become an intrapreneur and innovate inside of a larger organization, the process for using evidence to evaluate an idea is a highly sought after ‘skill for life’ that a participant can utilize in a wide variety of different contexts and applications.

Working collaboratively with a network of over one hundred mentors, the Wond’ry’s entrepreneurship team supports over four hundred ideas a year and this number has been growing at a rapid rate. Here are a few of the ways, the Wond’ry assists aspiring entrepreneurs:

Sullivan Family Ideator Program: this 5-week idea evaluation program teaches participants an evidence-based approach to customer discovery. Focused on customer interviewing, customer segment exploration, and value proposition development for early-stage ideas, this program gives innovators the opportunity to ensure they are building a solution that someone wants. Each participant receives a dedicated mentor and access to the program’s instructors through 1:1 office hours. At the end of the program, microgrants are provided to support the continued development of the most promising ideas.

Builder Program: this 9-week venture model evaluation program helps entrepreneurs with an idea that has found problem-solution fit to uncover whether a sustainable business model exists to support the organization that would be needed to take their idea out into the world. In this program, participants complete the Business Model Canvas they began in the Sullivan Family Ideator Program. Each participant receives a dedicated mentor and access to the program’s instructors through 1:1 office hours. At the end of the program, microgrants are provided to support the continued development of the most promising ideas.

Founder Program: this 6-12 month program provides no-cost office space, mentorship, and resources for entrepreneurs that have found or are on the cusp of finding product market fit. Designed to give these innovators the best shot at navigating the difficult early days of launching a venture, the Founder program encourages ventures to plant roots and grow their companies in Nashville and contribute to the vibrant local innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

National Science Foundation I-Corps Program: In 2017, Vanderbilt University received a grant from the National Science Foundation to train university scientists with deep technologies that are ripe for commercialization and how to move their ideas from the lab to the market. This program prepares teams to apply for NSF’s National I-Corps Program where, if accepted, they receive $50K in non-dilutive funding to conduct customer discovery around their idea. Over 93% of the teams coming through Vanderbilt’s training program that have pursued this prestigious national program have been accepted.

V-Corps: Not everyone is the idea person. V-Corps helps bring visibility to ideas at risk of being orphaned and intellectual property available from national agencies and matches them with faculty, students, staff, and alums with entrepreneurial ambitions that do not have an idea of their own that they’re working on. Once individuals or teams are matched with an idea, they have the opportunity to take that idea through the Wond’ry’s Ideator, Builder, and Founder program continuum.

Innovation Open Mic: Once a month, Innovation Open Mic provides an opportunity for any university-affiliated innovator from throughout the Southeast region to virtually present their idea to a network of established mentors and center leaders. This invite-only event provides a safe space for innovators to get feedback and make connections from experts from a much wider geographic area than just their home institution. Presenters receive a video of their presentation and a copy of the comments and connections offered from the audience of experts.

Due to the strength of its programming and team, the Wond’ry was named the Outstanding Emerging Entrepreneurship Center of the Year by the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers (GCEC) just two years after it started.

MAKE IT REAL is our motto in the Wond’ry Makerspaces. In these spaces, the Wond’ry team helps everyone from students to start-ups bring their ideas to life. Here, hands-on learning is key and the Wond’ry provides a team of faculty, staff, and student experts that provide entry level to advanced workshops and 1:1 support. The Wond’ry’s makerspaces include an Electrical Makerspace, Emerging Tech Lab, Fiber Arts Build Lab (Fab Lab), and a Mechanical Makerspace. These spaces contain the state-of-art equipment and technical assistance needed to take an idea from concept to prototype. The Makerspaces are open to the entire Vanderbilt community, as well as our partners. They serve as a hub for collaborative design, experiential learning, and interdisciplinary creation. The Wond’ry Makerspaces provide students, faculty, staff, and partners with the tools, training, and resources to pursue their passions and make their ideas real.

The Wond’ry Makerspaces offers critical supports in a number of ways:

Shared Fabrication Tools and Equipment: tools for rapid prototyping (e.g., 3D printers), fiber arts (e.g., sewing machine and textiles), mold making and casting, as well as electrical design tools, robotics, and much more are provided onsite.

Design Review Consultations: The Wond’ry team has extensive fabrication experience across a number of industries and many connections to subject matter experts at the university and throughout the region. Maker Techs are on hand daily to assist innovators with their projects.

Maker Events: The Wond’ry hosts a number of events, including the annual TN Maker Fest and Tikkun Olam Makers Makeathon, Wond’ry Maker Events bring maker communities together from across the region to share ideas and innovate together.

Weekly Safety Training Seminars: Safety Seminars help beginners to become efficient and safe makerspace users.

Workshops: The Wond’ry workshops are offered by makers in the community and focus on skill building through hands-on projects.

Tours: School tours are offered by appointment for students from elementary to high school.

All resources offered in the Wond’ry Makerspaces are provided at no-cost to the Vanderbilt community and Wond’ry partners.

The Innovation and Design Research (I&DR) practice area offers Wond’ry community members an opportunity to learn proven approaches to tackling innovation challenges. It teaches techniques for generating effective solutions which can support positive change in teams, organizations, and society. The I&DR area offers three program types: Design Studios, Design Doing Workshops, and Professional Education in Innovation & Design:

Design Studios: Design Studios are composed of local practitioners, students, staff, faculty, and mentors who collaboratively address important innovation opportunities not otherwise being addressed. Proposals for studios come from community members with a passion and commitment for addressing their issue in an innovative way. If accepted into the program, studio teams are given access to space, technical resources, design process expertise, and an incubation timeline of two years in which to explore and prove potential viability of their solution concept. Some current Design Studios address Climate Health and Energy Equity (CHEEL Lab), Undergraduate Employment and Diversity in the Quantum Computing Industry (Quantum Studio), and Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Student Athletes (and social influencers) in light of the NCAA rule changes on student use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL Studio).

Design Doing Workshops: These customized engagements help groups, campus work-units, and outside businesses apply the design thinking process by identifying creative solutions to the otherwise “wicked” problems they face. The Wond’ry staff and student fellows help design workshops to address the focal challenge and support clients in pre-session research to make sure that the right problem is being addressed. These Wond’ry team members then serve as facilitators and participants in design sprint sessions that help client teams move through the five phases in the design thinking process- empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. With a focus on iterating for rapid learning and improvement, the Design Doing workshops solve problems while working around clients’ availability and needs.

Professional Education in Innovation & Design: Professional Education offerings are a resource for learning the tools and frameworks needed to identify opportunities for innovation and to effectively address problems that result from poor design. These online and in-person, non-credit educational programs are intended for the full range of Wond’ry community members including faculty, staff, alums, and community partners. In addition to educational programming access, corporate members of the Wond’ry’s Industry Collaborator Program also have access to innovation expertise, research, and diagnostic tools to support the development of interventions to support the realization of the creative and innovation potential for their firms.

Wond’ry participants are making an impact. In just the few short years since the Wond’ry opened, our participants have already brought exciting solutions to life that are changing the world.

Leaf Global Fintech: Leaf started with a mission to enable refugees and displaced people to carry their money across borders safely and securely. Leaf’s founders, Tori Samples and Nat Robinson, have won a number of awards from the United Nations, The Vatican, Cisco, Fast Company, and were named to the global Inclusive Fintech 50 list. Their Innovative mobile wallet utilizes Stellar blockchain-powered solution to serve unbanked communities in East Africa. Post-graduation, the founders moved to Rwanda fulltime and in 2022, Leaf was acquired by IDT Corporation (NYSE: IDT), a global provider of fintech, cloud communications, and traditional communications services.

Inequities in Education: This Map the System Social Innovation team conducted a systems analysis of the inequities of the local educational system and highlighted some ways in which students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds are being left behind. The results of their work won first place during the Vanderbilt Map the System competition and earned them a place in the Top 6 during the Global Finals at Oxford University out of over 948 teams that competed from across the world. This team’s fantastic work is being utilized by NFL Superbowl Champion Michael Oher as he and his team at the Oher Foundation work to develop solutions that ensure every student has a chance to succeed.

Arms Cyber: When twin brothers, Brad and Tim Potteiger first met the Wond’ry team, they were participating in a competition to create a business model for a medical device technology. Not long into their first session of Wond’ry programming, the brothers approached the Wond’ry team. They’d had an idea throughout their PhD programs to develop a novel cybersecurity solution, but said, “It never felt possible until today.” That day their journey started to build innovative cyber company, Arms Cyber, began. They completed the NSF I-Corps National Program, won a number of pitch competitions, and have received millions in grant support. Their technology is being utilized by businesses and government agencies to protect against cyber-attacks.

Zeno Power: The Zeno team was the first Vanderbilt undergraduate team to be accepted into the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. Their technology, which started as a way to keep a drone in the air for a year, has evolved into an extremely innovative radioisotope power system (RPS) that will generate clean, resilient power for decades. The team, less than three years after undergrad, has raised over $20M to ramp up the production of small-scale nuclear batteries for spacecraft, deep-sea exploration, and challenging environments on Earth.

The Wond’ry supports a vibrant and diverse array of innovative, entrepreneurial, and social innovation projects involving faculty, students, and staff from Vanderbilt, as well as other universities throughout the region. This support takes many forms that often include training, programming, makerspaces, microgrants, incubation space, and access to a network of professionals willing to listen to ideas and provide feedback and/or mentorship. Mentors are needed in a variety of industries and with a variety of skill sets. The Wond’ry has mentors who consider themselves generalists, as well as those that have deep expertise in a specific area. If you’re interested in becoming a Wond’ry mentor, please reach out to us at [email protected].


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