Peter Huan walks into SPAC, seemingly unaware of the building’s athletic purpose. He is wearing jeans rather than running shorts, and is carrying a laptop and tri-fold poster rather than a water bottle and headphones. And what is that stairwell he is disappearing into? Has that always been there? No, Peter is not just a confused freshman. Rather, this student dressed in everyday wear is on his way to the Northwestern Garage, an innovation incubator whose aim is to help students experiment, collaborate and take their cross-disciplinary ideas to the next level.
The Garage first opened its doors in June 2015 with an event showcasing the types of student startups the space would help create, from childhood education curricula to 3-D sensing technology. Now, the space offers an array of academic and professional programs that help students develop entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. From prototyping workshops to pitch practice sessions with NU alums to a source of funding for new ideas and projects, The Garage serves as a true aggregator of innovation.
The Garage brings together students from all of Northwestern’s schools to attend workshops, collaborate and create businesses.
“We’re trying to expand the role of The Garage on campus this quarter – which means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Weinberg senior Lejia Duan, who works in the Garage.
One way The Garage physically made its presence known on campus was by being the venue for the most recent board of trustees dinner.
“We had set up demos as part of the event and a lot of the work that the student groups were doing, and it was super cool to see the board of trustees so blown away by what the technology here could do,” Duan said.
Stepping foot in the space and looking at the chrome, futuristic furniture and variety of workstations, it is hard not to be inspired – a feeling that has led many student groups working on innovative projects to apply for residency with the space. The resident, or ventures, program offers select students the opportunity to go through a quarter-long “personalized boot-camp” to transform ideas into a marketable business model, according to a press release for the Garage.
At a breakout space along the right wall sits one such group of students: McCormick juniors Peter Haun, Nicholas Kavanau, Alexander Gangwish and Dixon Yu, and McCormick sophomores Jack Evans and Blake Strebel. All members of Design for America (DFA), a nationwide network of student teams using human-centered design to create social impact, these six students have taken the The Garage’s title literally: attempting to come up with an in-car solution using existing technology for individuals who may be driving drowsily.
In fact, these students are working directly with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) as part of an affiliation with Design for America, in which FCA provides a $500 grant to a select DFA team to undertake this design challenge.
After a rigorous application process, the team was given the opportunity to spend Fall Quarter researching and prototyping a variety of possible solutions to a problem that affects everyone, especially the 90% of American citizens who say they drive to work, according to the Brookings Institute, and four percent of drivers have reported falling asleep at the wheel in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Team members offered up personal anecdotes to reinforce the statistics.
“This past weekend, I was driving on very little sleep and I know that if I had a way to wake myself up – I know I didn’t crash but if I had sort of a guarantee ... that’s not something I would even have to worry about,” Huan said.
Now that the FCA team is moving into the prototyping stage of development, The Garage is becoming an increasingly important resource. A whopping 11,000 square feet large, the space is comprised of privacy booths, a next-generation classroom with top-of-the-line video projection, group and individual work stations, a stocked kitchen, a workshop/prototyping area and more.
“I don’t know of any other channel that gives you access to an Oculus Rift or a Google Project Tango, so I would say [the space] is pretty unique,” Buan said.
“You feel like an entrepreneur when you’re in there,” Kavanau said, provoking nods of agreement from team members. The team was even able to bring their ideas back to a Sunday morning Design for America meeting in the space, where they passed around citrus and mint extracts to demonstrate how they were exploring aromatherapy as a possible drowsiness deterrent.
With a mission statement closely aligned with that of The Garage, Design for America utilizes the space frequently, making it easy for the FCA Team to see the value in applying for a residency with the brand new space.
“As we develop, they’re developing too,” Huan said, alluding to the increasing array of networking and team-building opportunities the space offers.
“As we create something physical and refine our strategy, there are always resources available to us,” Kavanau said, adding that The FCA team is also exploring reaction-time testing as a possible solution.
While The Garage itself has provided the FCA team members the chance to improve their collaborative and persuasive skills, working on such a project has had an impact that they say extends beyond just the development of innovation expertise.
“The biggest takeaway as we’ve gone through this project is ... when you put yourself in the situation – whether it’s theoretical or actual – you can see the real dangers, the real struggles and real journeys that people go through every single day,” Huan said.