Creative Collaborations for Greater Good

14 minute read

Building a collaborative ecosystem—a place where ideas grow, and businesses and people thrive—requires an unwavering vision and years of building and planning.

It has been 25 years since Wake Forest School of Medicine and Winston-Salem State University moved a group of researchers into a former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. warehouse downtown with a vision for what was then called Piedmont Triad Research Park. Today, the Innovation Quarter encompasses 330 acres with more than 170 companies, 3,700 workers and 1,800 degree-seeking students. That early vision of creating a robust knowledge community where collaborations emerge? Achieved.

On any given day here in the district, for example, leaders from a top academic medical center may be meeting with the founders of clinical research organizations. A few blocks away, a designer from a community makerspace may be writing a business grant with the help of start-up gurus at a co-working spot. And it’s likely, too, that the small business owners on a quirky stretch of street have found yet another way to build community on their corner of town.

This is convergence, and it’s no doubt a guiding principle not only for the Innovation Quarter, but also for a growing innovation economy in and around Winston-Salem. It’s also a heady concept for what seems to come naturally to entrepreneurs, institutions and small businesses in this area, who despite distinct differences in industry, size and scope have all found their place in this unique downtown district.

So, what’s the “magic in the mix” of these collaborations? What role does proximity play? What are the benefits of these partnerships, and what is the impact for the Winston-Salem community?

The answers can be found in three particularly innovative intersections.

Trialed and True

Three years ago, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center began thinking differently about clinical research. In the process of re-tooling its internal infrastructure support, the center’s leadership had what Terry Hales calls a big evolvement in their thinking.

“We knew medically that patient care and health outcomes benefitted from clinical research, and yet our current structure—chassis, if you will—couldn’t support the dream that every patient at Wake Forest Baptist Health and in our network would have an opportunity to participate in one,” explains Hales, MBA, senior vice president of academic administration and operations and executive vice dean for Wake Forest School of Medicine. “That reality set us on a journey to design the operating model of the future—the new chassis.”

Greg Burke, MD, MSc, Wake Forest School of Medicine’s chief science officer, senior dean for research and professor of public health sciences, explains that a new company came on the scene just as leadership was wrestling with this institutional model’s redesign. “We needed something different, and Javara was doing something different,” he says.

At the end of the day, the proximity of colleagues in the Innovation Quarter adds an extra dimension to our work.

Greg Burke

An integrated research organization working to revolutionize access to clinical trials, Javara opened its headquarters in Bailey Power Plant last fall with the goal of making clinical research more accessible to patients. “Clinical research is at its best when it’s part of the care continuum,” explains Amanda Wright, Javara’s vice president of partnership development. “That’s where we have a definite alignment with Wake Forest. We want to make sure that clinical research is available and accessible, and it begins here.”

From heart disease and cancer to diabetes, obesity, aging cognition and stress, leading illnesses and conditions can be better managed or eventually cured through rigorous research. And yet the average pharmaceutical drug can take 10 to 12 years to come to market, explains Javara CEO Jennifer Byrne. But by working on the back end with biopharmaceutical companies to help inform research and development initiatives, Javara can more efficiently deliver trial opportunities to partner health care systems and providers, plus help patients better understand the role that clinical research can play as part of their care.

Today, Javara and Wake Forest are collaborating on two pilot trials, and the organizations are actively designing their new shared model along the way.

“Given the partnership’s infancy, we don’t necessarily know what the end game is going to look like yet, and that’s OK,” Hales admits. “Part of being innovative means trying new things and charting new waters. We have both Javara, a private company, and the medical center, an academic not-for-profit institution, coming together with a commitment to clinical research. We’re both saying ‘we can do this better’—and that’s what we’re on a quest to do.”

Burke adds that proximity has been a benefit to the collaboration. Javara is physically located only a short distance from Wake Forest School of Medicine’s anchor presence downtown.

“Although a lot can be accomplished from a distance, at the end of the day, the proximity of colleagues in the Innovation Quarter adds an extra dimension to our work.”

But perhaps even more crucial is a shared culture.

“If the cultures of two groups don’t mesh, you won’t be successful,” says Burke. “In our case, the culture of Javara—where they want to go—meshes nicely with the culture of Wake Forest as we seek to move forward.”

Byrne (center) and Burke (right) meet with members of the Javara team

From where Byrne sits, the convergence of community support for the relatively new company has already exceeded expectations.

“We are very focused on building bridges within the Innovation Quarter, but we’re also very committed to bringing people in from outside of this community to see what’s happening within the Innovation Quarter,” says Byrne, noting that in addition to Wake Forest, Javara has pending but yet-unannounced partnerships with both a well-known West Coast academic medical system and another large health care organization.

Hales, who also provides leadership to the Innovation Quarter in his role with the School of Medicine, sees clinical research innovation as a growing sector of focus within the burgeoning knowledge community.

This is local work with a global impact, and that’s what energizes us to move forward.

Jennifer Byrne

“We know that clinical research as a process is evolving and companies like Javara are being formed as a result of that evolution,” says Hales. “And we know that learning academic medical centers like Wake Forest Baptist Health are conducting very high-level clinical trials with the ultimate outcome of improving health. It makes sense for the Innovation Quarter to begin to focus on clinical research innovation as a sector of growth here as it stands in that intersection.”

Byrne recalls that a year ago, Javara’s early conversations with local leaders were centered on vision. “We were committed to Innovation Quarter becoming a global research epicenter, and we’re seeing good progress not only in the collaboration between Javara and Wake Forest, but on the broader goals we set as well,” adds Byrne. “This is local work with a global impact, and that’s what energizes us to move forward.”

Armed with a new chassis, Hales agrees that the convergence with Javara is only the beginning.

“The innovation that we’re doing with clinical research is just an example,” he says. “We’re going to learn and change from this insight, and that’s what this place is all about.”

The Making of an Entrepreneur

Half a mile away and more than five years in the works is a nonprofit makerspace founded by Alan Shelton and a few hundred volunteers. MIXXER, a community for hobbyists and entrepreneurs to share workspace, support and tools to express and advance their ideas, has a variety of membership options. Its makers are given access to an 8,000-square-foot renovated warehouse divided into specialty labs packed with equipment for everything from electronics to sewing, woodworking to welding.

Here, designers, inventors, artists and dreamers have access to all they could need to get started making: heavy-duty workbenches, professional tools, 3D printers and laser cutters, bins of miscellaneous electronic parts, even secure storage spots and ideal lighting.

We knew we were going to be the needed cross point…a place of convergence for art and innovation.

Alan Shelton

It all takes place in another interesting convergence: MIXXER stands at the north end of the Innovation Quarter and the south end of Industry Hill, next door to the Winston Cup Museum and across the train tracks from Wise Man Brewing. The location was entirely intentional, says Shelton, MIXXER’s executive director. “We knew we were going to be the needed cross point for people—a place of convergence for art and innovation—so we wanted to locate ourselves where we would be physically at the intersection of the arts district and the Innovation Quarter.”

Less than two miles away in the state-of-the-art Center for Design Innovation is the headquarters for Flywheel, the city’s pioneer coworking space and entrepreneurial community featuring a sun-splashed open office plan with comfortably modern desk areas and high-tech meeting rooms, plus plenty of programming support for its diverse membership, who range from freelancers to small business start-ups and proprietors. Soon, Flywheel will make one of the biggest moves in its history, joining a new hub of downtown startup and co-working spaces at 500 W. 5th.

Although Flywheel and MIXXER don’t serve exactly the same constituency, Adrian Smith, programming director for both MIXXER and Flywheel, says the convergence points were undeniable.

Smith at Flywheel
Smith at Flywheel
Smith at Mixxer
Smith at Mixxer

“A Flywheel member may have plenty of ideas for a product they’d love to take to market, but they may not know their way around a shop, how to do a 3-D model or even ask the right design questions,” he explains. “On the flip side, MIXXER has inventors who can build products and tweak them, but then perhaps they don’t know how to take the next step—do they file for an LLC or go talk to investors?”

A reciprocal membership to MIXXER and Flywheel, appropriately dubbed Prototype, reduces the fee for dual memberships, while regular meet-ups with members from the two groups help demystify some of the business processes on both sides. The collaboration is still in its early stages, and Shelton and Smith are quick to point out that they’re letting members help guide what the shared culture will look like, but both are hopeful for an impactful relationship.

“Building a bridge so we can all know, trust and understand each other is critical for people who have big ideas,” says Shelton, who in his short time in business says he’s already seen this work.

Together, we are lowering the barrier to entry for business.

Adrian Smith

“Connectivity is happening. Communities that have historically been separated by financial or social barriers are coming together.” And with a special focus on underserved populations, the groups are finding ways to support people who’ve never had the opportunity to consider entrepreneurship.

This, Smith adds, is the biggest benefit of convergence. “Together, we are lowering the barrier to entry for business. It’s cheaper to get desk space, access to all of MIXXER’s tools, plus classes and the support of multiple organizations, than it has ever been in Winston-Salem.”

Over time, convergence points will only get stronger. Innovation Quarter makers, Flywheel members and people in the surrounding community will create companies, and those companies will create jobs and new products.

“Not only are new connections being made, but it’s also a city that I would like to live in—one that’s cool and inclusive, where people are employed, productive and giving back,” says Smith.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

In the footprint of Krankies Coffee, on the strollable block drawn by East 3rd Street, North Patterson Avenue and East 4th Street, a hodge-podge of diverse, yet like-minded shops have clustered together in both proximity and purpose.

For Joseph Bradford, co-owner of The Tin Can and the recently opened Lill Dipper, choosing this lower east side location a stone’s throw from Bailey Park was simple. “Winston-Salem has truly blown up in the last five years. It’s dynamic, it’s exciting and nowhere is that more true than the Innovation Quarter,” he says. “There are not a ton of places left for small brick-and-mortar businesses, so when this block came under new ownership and spaces opened up, we hopped all over it.”

The Tin Can, which will reopen in September after a renovation, is a neighborhood bodega that makes up in curated selection what it lacks in space. The sundry mercantile sells wine, beer, sundries and more. Bradford calls his 200-square-foot space a “micro-shop,” and in late May, he made that area work double-time as he and John Bryan opened Lill Dipper, a teal-splashed window-service stop for gourmet soft serve. Just down the way sits the industrially hip Krankies Coffee, which serves three meals a day plus award-winning coffee; Pink Rhino Beauty Parlor, a colorfully chic collective of independent stylists; Fair Witness Fancy Drinks, an approachably cool craft cocktail bar; and Cycle Your City, a full-service bicycle repair shop.

Bradford, a Southern California transplant with a full beard and friendly smile, says he’s never lived in a place where people look out for each other so well.

Bradford (left) and Nolan (right) enjoy a moment chatting in front of Fair Witness
Bradford (left) and Nolan (right) enjoy a moment chatting in front of Fair Witness

Tim Nolan, co-owner of Fair Witness, has been hanging out at The Wherehouse (a former iteration of the iconic Krankies building) since he was a young musician. Two decades later, the self-described “nerdy-artsy” bartender says he feels both an interest in and an obligation to keeping small business strong in this block.

Nolan notes the neighborhood can feel a bit like “Sesame Street” in the way the owners tend to look after one another.

Nolan opened the corner anchor Fair Witness with childhood friend Blake Stewart in Spring 2018, and says the key to the block’s success is that cross-pollination happens naturally here. Sometimes it’s organized in the form of food events, co-sponsorships, or progressive wine and beer tastings, but Nolan says most commonly it’s more organic: “If a customer rides in on a bike, I’ll say, ‘did you know there’s a great repair shop around the corner?’ ”

As customers drift out from the mod lounge to the sidewalk patio, Nolan notes the neighborhood can feel a bit like “Sesame Street” in the way the owners tend to look after one another. Bradford agrees, “We’re all so close and so united. We don’t only work together—we eat together, drink together, laugh and cry together.”

And whether they’ve been here for years or are just setting up shop, business owners like Nolan believe there’s a larger, more critical purpose behind the block’s power-in-numbers convergence: “Because there’s so much new investment, there’s a potential to lose some of the culture that—in my perspective—has created the downtown Winston-Salem that people actually want to come to. The more the people that are steering the culture of downtown cooperate with each other, the stronger and more democratic voice we will have in what we do.”

The Meeting Place

Indeed, the city’s biggest intersections aren’t on the map. Led by creative collaborators who’ve found great value in the “sum is greater than its parts” style of convergence, innovative partnerships are happening daily downtown. And who benefits? We all do.

“What is that thing that people get excited about when they come to Innovation Quarter?” prompts Hales. “The secret sauce is this very unique, purposefully constructed learning environment where we all come together and go, ‘it’s OK to think outside the box and be committed to innovation for the sake of applying it back to something that makes us all better.’”