Unexpected Opportunities: Exploring Innovative Education in the Innovation Quarter

15 minute read

A couple of entrepreneurs playing with a drone

The Miracle on Ice. Hoosiers. The Jamaican bobsled team. Everyone loves an underdog. We cheer for fourth quarter comebacks and Cinderella stories, the ones that inspire movies like Eddie the EagleThe Blindside and Rudy. There’s something about the unexpected that resonates with us.

Many worried what would happen to Winston-Salem, North Carolina after big tobacco—and other large corporations—left downtown. And even more raised eyebrows when the idea of growing an “innovation district” out of the abandoned tobacco factories was proposed. Turning from tobacco to technology was an unexpected change for the city of arts and innovation.

In a place called Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, it’s not unexpected to hear about educational institutions like Wake Forest School of Medicine and Wake Forest University. After all, they share a name.

This is a story about some of the other institutions whose contributions help make the Innovation Quarter truly innovative.

You might expect to find an academic institution tied to a place like the Innovation Quarter. That’s the model for many innovation districts around the world.

What’s unexpected is to find so many educational institutions in close proximity to each other—there are five that run programs here—but what makes the confluence even more unique is not only proximity, but also collaboration. These institutions collaborate with each other to create unique, quality educational opportunities for a wide range of students.

Endeavors supported by three institutes of higher education in Winston-Salem—Forsyth Technical Community College, UNC School of the Arts and Winston-Salem State University—are integral to the blossoming innovation ecosystem expanding here, adding to the efforts of the well-known higher-education outposts of Wake Downtown and the Bowman Gray Center for Medical Education.

These institutions and the unexpected opportunities they provide contribute to both the growth of the local economy and a vibrant community within the innovation district, thanks to the diverse—and sometimes non-traditional—student populations they bring to the Innovation Quarter.

Equipping Minorities in the Sciences:

The Biomedical Research Infrastructure Center of Winston-Salem State University

On the southwest edge of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, in the section that was the birthplace of the Innovation Quarter, the Piedmont Triad Community Research Center lives nestled between its more recognizable neighbors, the Richard Dean Building and One Technology Place. The 100,000-square-foot former tobacco building is one of the original buildings of the innovation district, built in 1957. The structure is unassuming at best, a three-story tan brick building renovated into laboratory space and research facilities in 1994.

But—as is usually the case—what goes on inside the building is what really makes it special. Living side-by-side with departments of Wake Forest University Health Sciences in the Piedmont Triad Community Research Center is one of those special entities, the Biomedical Research Infrastructure Center (BRIC) of Winston-Salem State University.

“The BRIC was established in 1996 to foster research activities within Winston-Salem State University,” says Azeez Aileru, PhD, director of the BRIC and professor of neuroscience.

The Center promotes the participation of minorities in biomedical and behavioral sciences by creating a hands-on training ground for undergraduates interested in careers and terminal degrees in STEM fields.

Funded by a series of grants, the Center was one of the original recipients of the Research in Minority Institutions grant from the National Institutes of Health—a fact that causes Aileru to beam with pride. And rightly so.

“Our vision for the BRIC is to develop leading scientists from our minority institution who contribute to research relevant to health in minority and underserved populations and that addresses health disparities,” says Aileru. “Scientists who will change their communities.”

Every year, around 30 undergraduate students gain valuable research skills and opportunities through the Center. Each student is partnered with a faculty mentor, someone who matches their research interests, in areas that range from neuroscience and hypertension to regenerative medicine or even drug discovery.
“Everything is based on hands-on experience. Once a student chooses a research path, then we develop a program for them,” says Aileru. “Many of them work with Winston-Salem State faculty at the Center, but a good aspect of this program is that some of the students are mentored by faculty from other institutions.”

By developing collaborative, professional relationships with researchers at other institutions and groups like Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the Center can help each student find a researcher who can best prepare them for a career or graduate work in their chosen field.

“I’ve never had faculty at other schools say ‘No,’” Aileru says with a smile. “Mentoring students is something that researchers like to do.”

Collaborations That Impact Communities

Read about a unique “crossover” community relations course held at Wake Downtown that mixes students from Winston-Salem State University and Wake Forest University, and is taught by leaders from both institutions. See the full story.

Every year the SciTech Institute—a joint program between Winston-Salem State University and the Innovation Quarter—introduces hundreds of middle- and high-school students from underrepresented communities to STEAM subjects and careers. Read more.

In the last 10 years, the Center has trained and conferred more than 60 undergraduate students, all of whom are working or studying in the areas of biomedical or behavioral sciences.

Though planning to move to Winston-Salem State’s new sciences building when completed in a few years, the BRIC has existed in the Innovation Quarter since its inception, and Winston-Salem State University leadership is already exploring new options to increase its presence within the innovation district. Aileru credits the program’s location in the innovation district with improving the program through cross-institutional collaboration.

“I think that proximity is an excellent idea for collaboration across disciplines,” says Aileru. “Cross-institution and cross-discipline partnerships are very good for us and for other institutions as well. We get mutual benefit from each other.”

Building a Better Economy:

Forsyth Tech Community College

Over the years, Forsyth Tech has earned a reputation for providing quality education for a wide range of undergraduate students. But behind the double doors of the community college’s Innovation Quarter location on the main floor of the 525@vine building, lies much more than one may think—a treasure trove of resources to help promote the growth of Winston-Salem’s economy.

Jennifer Coulombe’s office overlooks the deep atrium of 525@vine. Through the windows, she can see the comings and goings of the wide variety of people that make use of the educational opportunities offered through Forsyth Tech’s Innovation Quarter location.

“The typical ‘student’ you see here is not your traditional student,” says Coulombe, dean of business and industry services at Forsyth Tech and the leader of the Innovation Quarter campus. “They are often employed by local companies and coming here for training or small business proprietors attending seminars.”

“The goal of our location downtown is to set itself apart as the Forsyth Tech campus that serves business and industry of this community, from large, giant mega-industry to one-man shops,” says Jennifer. “Given that goal, this is where we needed to be.”

Forsyth Tech supports the business community through a variety of programs, some of which involve recruiting businesses to move to or stay in North Carolina as they expand. Forsyth Tech also provides companies of all sizes with training programs to grow or develop their workforce, including training employees with new skills, introducing new technologies and increasing productivity.

“The community recognizes us as a resource for businesses where they can grow and develop their most important resource, their people,” says Coulombe.

For more than 30 years, Forsyth Tech has also served the small business entrepreneurs of Winston-Salem through the Small Business Center by providing small businesses or those wanting to start their own business with the resources they need to thrive

Allan Younger, director of the Small Business Center, is front-and-center in that mission. Like Coulombe, his office looks into the atrium of the building and is just inside the doors of Forsyth Tech’s space. It’s a position he takes advantage of to meet as many people as he can.

The Small Business Center offers an entire suite of services including a variety of educational events, a team of business mentors and a resource center, which offers space for entrepreneurs to work as well as information.

And all of those services are available—for free—to small business entrepreneurs.

“One of the most challenging things for any business owner is not knowing anyone who has done what they hope to do,” says Younger.  “The Small Business Center gives entrepreneurs the chance to interact with others who are in the same place and to realize that the Innovation Quarter is for them, too. It’s not just for the scientists or the biotech companies, but it’s also for small businesses.”

Bringing around 7,300 visitors to the Innovation Quarter each year, Forsyth Tech is committed to creating a thriving business community by improving the successes of both established companies and start-ups.

“Being here, we are helping to create a new story of Winston-Salem,” says Coulombe.

Leading the Nation:

The National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce

When it comes to Forsyth Tech at Innovation Quarter, there are more surprises in store than just the Small Business Center. Wind down the hall and around the corner of their space and there you find the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce, a program dedicated to strengthening a very particular sector of the economy: the biotechnology industry.

“Our mission is to equip our local, state and national economies with a skilled biotech workforce,” says Russ Read, who is executive director of the National Center. “As the field of biotechnology expands, so do the employment needs of the biotech industry.”

For every biotech researcher in a lab, there are a number of technicians and support roles that are needed, and those roles require training, regulation and guidance. Since 2005, the National Center has supported workforce training in biotechnology by developing skill standards and best practices for the industry and by running a fellowship program where bioscience instructors from across the U.S. come to the Innovation Quarter to receive a month of immersive, hands-on training and industry experience.

“Our fellowship program is unique,” says Read of the National Science Foundation-sponsored program. “There’s nothing like it in the States where participants spend half their time with industry and half their time in hands-on workshops. They get a real flavor for what’s going on in biomanufacturing, small molecules and regenerative medicine and take that back to the classroom.”

The newest aspect of the National Center is its Molecular and Analytic Training Lab, where start-ups and small biotech businesses can access specialized lab equipment and bench space available for rent.

Illuminated by the iconic full story windows that define 525@vine, the Molecular and Analytic Training Lab houses state-of-the-art equipment related to a variety of biotechnological research and development: Next Generation Sequencing technology, chromatography, mass spectrometry. And depending on when you walk down the halls, the occupants will vary—from high school students and college instructors to researchers and entrepreneurs, all benefiting from the Forsyth Tech-supported National Center.

“We see the need for lab space and equipment growing over time, and we see a lot of potential in how we can partner with local companies to provide the space they need to pursue innovative work,” says Jason Gagliano, who manages the Molecular and Analytic Training Lab.

Through the lab, the National Center will sharpen the skills of the biotech industry through classes in basic lab skills, good manufacturing practices and genetic sequencing, not just for Forsyth Tech students but also for companies—small and large—that want to improve their employees.

“We do a lot of work with partners at the national level, but we also want to be involved with our own community,” Read says. “Being a part of the Innovation Quarter is all about community. We make a lot of connections from being here, and we love to bring fellows and other partners here from other states.”

Designing Community:

The Center for Design Innovation

If you follow the Long Branch Trail, a greenway being developed along the length of the Innovation Quarter, from the center of the Innovation Quarter to the southern tip of the innovation district, you get a unique view of how this place is being developed.

As you proceed under the overpass of Business 40 and around a bend, the beacon of modern architecture that is the Center for Design Innovation (CDI) comes into view, its signature CUBE structure rising from the grassy fields developing into the South District of the Innovation Quarter. CDI is a signal of the development that is still to come.

The design of the CDI building—designed by CJMW Architecture of Winston-Salem—reflects the intent of its founding. CDI was established in 2007 by the University of North Carolina system as an interdisciplinary center to support and nurture a burgeoning design community in the Triad. Shared by three institutions—Winston-Salem State University, UNC School of the Arts and Forsyth Tech—CDI is one of only two inter-institutional research centers in the UNC system.

In 2016, two interim co-directors started leading CDI: Carol Davis, who came to the center from a background in economic and community development with the S.G. Atkins Community Development Corporation, and Betsy Towns, who is a practicing artist and designer, faculty leader and associate professor of art history at UNC School of the Arts.

“Our first task was listening,” says Towns. “We worked to locate the intersections between the missions of the universities providing CDI’s core and the real-world needs that interdisciplinary design might illuminate, needs that provide rich material for educational experiences as we developed strategic vision for CDI’s growth.”

“We’ve had three themes emerge from our conversations with the community and the students and faculty of our respective university campuses,” Davis adds. “The intersections of art and science, innovative education design and design for just and sustainable communities.”

After a few months of careful testing and evaluation of these themes, CDI rolled out a series of public and university-specific prototype programs to support those themes.

Students from Winston-Salem State and the School of the Arts utilize the space and resources of CDI to explore all aspects of design through classes like motion capture and urban planning, as well as workshops in interdisciplinary design, technical and hands-on skills and research projects with faculty or students from other institutions in the Triad.

“Our students have a strong desire for interdisciplinary exploration,” says Towns. “CDI provides opportunities for students to interact with ideas and their expression in contemporary media and with collaborative research that goes deeper than typical undergraduate experience.”

The co-directors are also busy making space for the community to access the amenities and capabilities of CDI to tackle design in all its forms and permutations. Through programs and projects, the community can use CDI’s maker labs, as well as the CUBE, an immersive visualization space and architectural landmark.

“There’s more room for more people at the table,” says Davis. “CDI is not just technology focused, but also design focused, dedicated to designing solutions in any discipline.”

During the fall semester, CDI launched four monthly events to support design themes, including bringing back two programs—IDEAexchange and Innovators Mixer—that help people with ideas interact and share the projects that they are working on. The monthly events also include two brand new programs: Step N2 This Class, a lunchtime discussion by professors offering sneak-peaks into the courses they teach and the methods they use, and MAKEnights, with monthly themes for hands-on engagement.

“The goal of our programming is to help people visualize themselves here at CDI, to see how their ideas fit in here and to find their way into projects,” says Davis.

“Longer term, the programs offer frequent opportunities to prototype, test and refine emerging research and design ideas with novel combinations of thinkers,” Towns adds.

The co-directors want the community to realize that CDI is a place for people of all ages to interact and share ideas, not just college students and faculty. As part of that goal, CDI formed a relationship with Flywheel, a coworking space for entrepreneurs and small businesses that operates out of the CDI building. CDI also hosts events for kindergarten through 12th grade students, adding to the mix of ages—and perspectives—filling the space.

“In our public programs, CDI offers interactions that stretch people beyond their typical circles and experiences,” says Towns. “The center creates bridges across the disciplines, sectors, and institutions, creating an atmosphere where people with different backgrounds, educations and points of view work, think and play together. The long term research program supports and builds the strong new ideas that emerge.”

Digging Deep:

Contributing to the Innovation Community

In addition to occupying a physical niche in the Innovation Quarter, each of these programs serves a specific niche of people: small business entrepreneurs, undergraduates in minority institutions, national biotech leaders, design students, the business workforce.

While each institution pursues a different segment of the community, they are all united in one purpose: creating pathways for diverse groups to participate in the innovation economy of Winston-Salem. After all, that’s that what innovation is about: bringing more voices into proximity with each other to ignite the unexpected.

by Jessica Brown