Live, Learn, Launch: How a Radical Live-Work Space Is Igniting Campus Innovation

Jun 04, 2019

Student engagement is key to energizing learning outcomes, and universities have been investing heavily in building multi-purpose spaces that provide opportunities for students to imagine, prototype, fail and retool their way to profound learning experiences.

But the University of Utah has gone a step further, intentionally blending learning, making and living spaces. In the process, it has ignited entrepreneurial innovation on its campus and potentially created a new template for others to design educational spaces that drive deep learning.

If It Doesn’t Exist, Build It

“While there is a lot of research on new modes of learning, the exact link between entrepreneurship and students’ living spaces had not been tested,” says Mehrdad Yazdani, the lead designer and director of Yazdani Studio for Cannon Design, a design firm tapped by the university to spearhead the effort to design the cutting-edge space. “So, we decided to create a new typology for what a live-work space could be.”

The outcome: Lassonde Studios, an education center in the middle of campus where students can live, learn and launch companies. The center combines student residences with a 20,000-square foot Neeleman Hangar, open to any student on campus from 7am to 1am.

Lassonde Studios makerspace. (Photo credit: Tim Hursley)

“On one end there is a shop with a saw and a 3-D printer. On the other side there is a cafe,” says Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which oversees the studio space. “In the middle, there’s a baby grand piano. Every now and then someone will sit down and play beautiful music with people standing around.”

The Studios are home to 400 students and offer over 20 student-driven programs that range from business-planning competitions to support groups for artists-as-entrepreneurs and product designers targeting medical innovation.

The results speak for themselves. Since Lassonde Studios opened in 2016, the number of startup teams formed on campus has quintupled to 504 today. On its inaugural rankings for top business schools, Bloomberg Businessweek now ranks the university’s full-time MBA program the second best in the nation for entrepreneurship—right behind Stanford but ahead of UC Berkeley and MIT.

Building a Space That Amplifies Innovation and Connection

Lassonde Studios evolved out of a $25 million dollar gift from investor, philanthropist, and University of Utah alumnus Pierre Lassonde to spur entrepreneurship in a student-focused and interdisciplinary manner.

“We first started with commercializing technology developed in our labs and helped spin out 65 companies,” says D’Ambrosio. “As we tried to grow that approach, we found out that students needed more than just help with business planning and connecting to investors.” The idea to build a space organized around natural interactions and that supports creative thinking was born.

University of Utah students convene in the open-community innovation space on the ground floor of Neeleman Hangar at Lassonde Studios. (Photo credit: Tim Hursley)

While the Neelman Hangar is open to the public, the residential spaces are designed with an eye for variations in the live-work continuum. There are lofts that allow entrepreneurs to live with their startup teams. There are groups of 20 single-occupancy suites—called pods—that offer individual private spaces linked to shared kitchens and adjoining workspaces. Each floor has a theme, ranging from sustainability and global impact to games and digital media.

The “beauty” of living in such a community is “being able to connect with the people around you in a much more professional and friendship-based sense,” says Logan Erikson, an entertainment arts and engineering student. “The way the building is laid out, people just naturally bump into each other.”

“The line between living, thinking, collaborating, and making are blurred,” says Yazdani. At Lassonde Studios, “if you get up at 2 a.m. and have an idea and want to act on the idea, you don’t have to wait until the maker space opens.”

Our students are not reading case studies. They are the case study.
Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute

CannonDesign aimed for a space that functioned as a platform for engagement.

“Normally you write the program and then design the building. We designed the building in a way that told us what programming we should have,” says Yazdani. “We made a lot of spaces raw. The furniture is purposefully eclectic to make you put your feet on it. Those are things that were carefully orchestrated to allow students to feel liberated to act on their instincts 24/7.”

A Self-Sustaining Culture of Creativity

While many entrepreneurship programs focus solely on those building businesses, Lassonde Studios is intentionally open to all students. The residences have attracted students from 85 different majors, including modern dance, political science, ethnic studies and communications.

For Parker Andriese, an entrepreneurship student, the ability to be surrounded by more than just business-school students is a plus.

“You do not have to be an entrepreneur or a business owner that has clientele or income to live in this space or to utilize what Lassonde has to offer,” says Andreise. “The Institute is looking for hungry, driven, passionate individuals from whatever medium it may be, whatever passion you may have, to come get involved … and partner with other individuals that have similar interests to help excel you further.”

Programming is student designed and student-led, in line with the entrepreneurial spirit the institute hopes to instill.

“There is always a constant flow of input from students,” says D’Ambrosio. “In Lassonde Studios, I don’t have an office. This is a completely student-owned space.”

University of Utah students convene in the open-community innovation space on the ground floor of Neeleman Hangar at Lassonde Studios. (Photo credit: Tim Hursley)

“It’s right on the edge of total chaos,” remarks Thad Kelling, marketing manager for the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute. “[Student] housing is usually rule driven. We only have three rules: don’t do anything illegal, respect others, and have fun.”

Creating a space where students feel empowered was not a straightforward task, however.

“Our first year, we over-organized the space. So, we’ve had to back off of that,” says D’Ambrosio. “We tried bringing in non-university individuals to try to make it a community space, but that was resisted by the students because it was disruptive. It’s their home and it is disruptive to bring a third party in.”

Pulling the Lessons Back Into the Curriculum

As product managers for their own community, the students and staff of Lassonde Studios continue to tweak programming each year, choosing which features to continue and which to discard. And, looking to the future, the university continues to innovate on its model.

Bucking the trend of business schools that are closing down their MBA programs, Lassonde is actually pursuing expansion. In May, the leaders of the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute announced the launch of a new Master of Business Creation. The degree program takes the lessons learned from creating an organic maker space and pulls them into the curriculum of the David Eccles School of Business.

The new master’s program, which will enroll its first cohort this fall, will blend the capabilities of a business accelerator with the rigor of a business-school education. Entrepreneurs in residence will get their tuition paid for themselves as well as up to three employees of their business and have their own office space. Each startup team enrolling in the program will be assigned coaches and spend the bulk of their time learning the practical steps of growing a business.

“Our curriculum is entirely focused on startups and creation of businesses. Our students are not reading case studies. They are the case study,” says D’Ambrosio.


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