Brandeis Innovation: the intersection of entrepreneurship and research

April 13, 2018

UPDATED 4/18 at 2:11 p.m.

“Brandeis Innovation is one of Brandeis’ best-kept secrets,” said Rebecca Menapace, the assistant provost for innovation as well as the executive director of the Office of Technology and Licensing and the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center. Housed in the Bernstein-Marcus Administrative building, Brandeis Innovation, which encompasses the Office of Technology Licensing and the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center, was named after the Hassenfeld family. The Hassenfeld family has deep ties with the International Business School (IBS) and the Heller School and were also the founders of the Hasbro toy company.

Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro, gave $2.5 million to Menapace and IBS to start the center. “The idea for the center first came to me during my initial assessment as head of the Office of Technology Licensing,” Menapace said in an interview. “I wanted a center that could tie together all the different types of entrepreneurship and innovation happening across campus under a central hub. I saw a missed opportunity to engage students outside of the research lab, and I came up with an idea to [create] a center that could bring together business students with researchers around the theme of research and entrepreneurship in a way that cut across disciplines.”

The name Brandeis Innovation came into being to help establish the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center as a place of innovation-driven efforts. “Most people are unaware that Brandeis Innovation comprises of the Office of Technology Licensing and the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center. The Office of Technology Licensing takes things that were developed in our labs by faculty and postdocs and commercializes it. On the other hand, Hassenfeld is the funding for student and faculty entrepreneurial efforts that won’t necessarily be the next blockbuster drug,” said Christina Inge, the web and communications consultant for Brandeis Innovation.

The center helps to fund three different programs: SPARK, SPROUT and I-Corp. SPARK is aimed at funding ideas across a campuswide audience. Each fall,  Brandeis Innovation hosts its own SPARK Tank, Brandeis’ personal version of “Shark Tank,” a television show where companies pitch their inventions or companies to “sharks,” business moguls who help to fund their projects. The program places all the teams on an even playing field, Inge said. “All the students, undergraduates and graduates, and faculty who participate are judged fairly and evenly, to allow equal opportunity for all the competitors.”

The SPROUT program was the initial innovation program prior to Menapace’s arrival at Brandeis. As a research-driven university, the SPROUT program is specifically targeted for students and faculty in the STEM fields to bring out an entrepreneurial aspect to their research, Menapace said. “It is a really nice pairing to see the scientists getting the chance to interact with more business-oriented people. Oftentimes, the scientists are even learning more as the business people are able to provide input in different areas to make the project more profitable.”

The final program, I-Corps, is a training program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). At an NSF-funded school, students and faculty who compete in I-Corps on campus are eligible for national competitions where they can receive even more funding and present at national and international conferences. Through this program, scientists are able to extend their focus beyond the laboratory setting and learn more of the economic and societal benefits of the research they perform. The program has a collection of mentors on hand and funding to support innovative startups and technology developed by Brandeis personnel.

In late November every year, Brandeis Innovation holds its annual Innovation Showcase, where team competition winners are able to present their creations and ideas to an audience that includes not only students and faculty, but also potential investors. With such a unique program, the center welcomes back alumni as mentors for current students.

“One of the best things about the center is the mentorship that students receive from alumni. It is programs like these that helped jumpstart their careers after Brandeis and mentoring is their way to give back to the program,” Menapace said.

As society continues to advance, there will continue to be a growing overlap between interdisciplinary studies. Innovation centers are popping up all across the world, allowing for scientists and businesspeople to converge to make products that help drive the future. The members of Brandeis Innovation hope for students to step outside their comfort zones and see the variety of opportunities, and hidden gems that lie within their subjects of interest.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that IBS hosts the annual SPARKTank. Brandeis Innovation hosts this event. The article also stated the I-Crops program receives the majority of its funding from the NSF. It is entirely NSF funded.

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