The Shoemaker Innovation Center has become a hub of entrepreneurship at IU.
Innovators drive ideas, but without the proper support, the next world-changing development could fade away before it ever sees the light of day.
The Shoemaker Innovation Center at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering exists to help student entrepreneurs and innovators find the resources they need to make their dreams a reality. Established thanks to a generous gift from John and Donna Shoemaker in 2015, the Shoemaker Innovation Center provides the only student incubator on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, in addition to hosting classes, workshops, and events for entrepreneurs. Students from every discipline across the IU campus are welcome to use the center and its resources to build their business or innovation from a thought to reality.
“When John and Donna gave the gift to establish the center, they wanted it to be cross-disciplinary,” says Travis Brown, senior executive assistant dean of innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization at the Luddy School. “They wanted it to be inclusive of students from across campus, and I certainly shared that belief, but we didn’t have to make a concerted effort to draw students from multiple disciplines. That happened organically, and it's a testament to the value we're providing that the students who are among the most dedicated student entrepreneurs on campus choose to be affiliated with the Shoemaker Innovation Center.”
The center includes the Shoebox, which is the incubator through which student entrepreneurs build, launch, and sustain their businesses, as well as receive mentoring from experienced professionals who meet with them to provide feedback and advice. Students are also afforded free services through external partnerships such as initial consultations provided by Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller, guidance regarding raising venture capital provided by Elevate Ventures, and advice concerning technological considerations provided by DeveloperTown.
In addition, the Shoebox Scholarship Program supports students who have been accepted to work in the Shoebox and is comprised of an array of scholarships designed with the intent to encourage key activities that support a viable, vibrant, university-based student incubator. Also, the Cheng Wu Innovation Challenge gives innovators a chance to compete for as much as $20,000 to develop a technological concept regardless of immediate commercial considerations.
“We aim to eliminate every possible excuse students might have when it comes to developing their idea,” Brown says. “ ‘I would do it, but I don’t have mentorship.’ Well, check that box. We do that. ‘I need help with legal services, and I can’t afford that.’ Well, check that box. We do that, too. ‘I want space to work and connect with other student entrepreneurs on campus.’ Done. We’re eliminating all the obstacles that might impede someone who is passionate about their idea and entrepreneurship.”
The center also provides opportunities for students to test their dedication to an idea.
“We’re seeing students who are apprehensive about their idea get a chance to work in the Shoebox and decide they’re not as passionate about entrepreneurship as they thought they were,” Brown says. “And that’s fine. I tell them to find something they’re passionate about and come back or change direction. That’s education.”
Maybe the most important lessons taught at the Shoemaker Innovation Center come from peers. Students who have been a part of the center for a few years are helping provide guidance for newcomers who are just exploring entrepreneurship, and they can do it without hesitation or feeling competition for resources.
“What the Shoebox does is give students a bridge to get into the mix with other students who are in a similar space and feel okay that they don’t have all the answers,” Brown says. “Entrepreneurship is a challenge. It can be scary. They don’t have to put on a show. Save the show for potential investors. We’ve been able to provide that support for people getting started, and I’m incredibly proud of that fact.”
The Shoemakers’ support of the program goes well beyond their financial generosity. John is on the advisory board of the center and has been part of the speaker series that helps bring the students closer to the professionals who have built successful careers in entrepreneurship, and Brown regularly corresponds with both Donna and John to solicit their input regarding the center’s operations.
“These kids are smart,” Shoemaker says. “They’re passionate, but they don’t have any experience. Having people who they can bounce their thoughts and ideas off and just ask questions of is huge. We give them emotional support as well as the sort of wisdom of failures and experience they need. But it’s no one single thing. It’s about networking and getting support and exchanging ideas with other startups. Having that kind of environment and some reassurance as you’re working your butt off to make your concept a success is really good.”
Wu’s active support has been critical to the development of the Shoemaker Innovation Center as well, specifically in respect to facilitating an emphasis on radical rather than incremental innovation.
“These are engaged people,” Brown says. “They want to see students succeed, and they’re giving both their financial support and their time to help students find their way. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have donors who are engaged and passionate about what we’re building, and they’ve been great partners throughout the entire process.”
The Shoemaker Scholars, a group of 10 students from a variety of IU academic programs who encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among students, have been critical as well. The group develops and maintains StartupIU, an initiative that provides a hub for IU’s entrepreneurial and innovative community by simplifying and centralizing information about competitions and other events.
“The Shoemaker Scholars are creating awareness at a university level, and the center has become a hub where people can go to learn about how to get involved in entrepreneurship,” Shoemaker says. “That’s an area I hope will continue to grow. It reaches beyond just one school on campus. There’s critical growth of its value to be building and improving the various resources and sources of expertise that can help students and teams develop their ideas.”
The Shoemaker Innovation Center also is evolving. Students are constantly being asked how the center can better support their success leading to improvements even while students dealt with COVID-19 and working in a virtual workspace.
“Every single time students present to the advisory board, I ask what we can do better,” Brown says. “I don’t want them to be shy. I want them to be open about it. It makes the students feel like they’re part of the solution, and it allows donors and the advisory board to know we’re not doing this for show. We’re sincere about providing value for everyone.”
For instance, a student asked Brown if the center could put together a directory of company names, descriptions, and the members to help improve communication between clients of the Shoebox. Another student asked for onboarding materials that would enable students to become familiar with the center more quickly, an element that hadn’t previously been needed since students were so familiar with working shoulder-to-shoulder vs. in a virtual environment.
Those examples may not be necessary in a post-COVID world, but it also can lead to more innovations in the future.
Hayden Wertz, a former Shoebox client who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the Luddy School, has experienced the impact of the Shoemaker Innovation Center.
“The center is a high-quality space full of multiple meeting rooms and large conference rooms that I would not have been able to afford while in school, in addition to the community of like-minded individuals to draw inspiration from and collaborate with,” Wertz says. “It was a big driver for me because I was running an e-commerce telecommunications company with my brother at the time, and within three months of access to the Center, our business grew 25 percent faster than it previously had been. Because of the Shoemaker Innovation Center, I was able to meet passionate, like-minded individuals with whom I am now building a company and creating jobs that didn't previously exist.
“To me, without hyperbole, the center is the greatest incentive and opportunity that you can give to any student who has dreamed of creating something great. I believe it is perfectly named because it is the center of innovation for all entrepreneurs who are looking to learn and grow, not only their business, but also their network and personally.”
Ultimately, the goal of the Shoemaker Innovation Center has been to break down silos on campus and encourage collaboration in the entrepreneurship community at IU, a goal that is in sight.
“We’re succeeding,” Brown says. “It’s certainly not mission accomplished, but students are reaching out from across campus. Students will vote with their participation. We don’t have to cajole them. We don’t have to force them. They will show up if there’s value being provided. Word has gotten out, and students are coming.”