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New da Vinci Center director sees university as a living lab

After tenure at country's most innovative university, Garret Westlake sees great promise in the grit and ingenuity of VCU's students

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Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the VCU da Vinci Center, in the former vault housing the center's 3-D printers and other high-tech tools. Photo by Pat Kane/University Public Affairs

As associate dean of student entrepreneurship in the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Arizona State University, Garret Westlake oversaw the university’s status as the country’s No. 1 most innovative university — beating out Stanford and MIT, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Westlake, who became the executive director of the Virginia Commonwealth University da Vinci Center July 1, sums up the cause of ASU’s success with an anecdote about the school’s swim coach.

“We had a student robotics team that wanted to test an underwater robot,” Westlake said. “They came to me and said, ‘The deepest body of water in all of Arizona is the ASU swim team and dive pool. Is there any way we can test our robot in the swim team pool?’ I called the swim coach [but] thought this was never going to happen. And his feedback to me was, ‘I understand that entrepreneurship is one of our values at this institution. So anything this team needs to do in the pool outside of hours we can absolutely make it available to them.’

“And I thought a culture where your swim coach recognizes the value of entrepreneurship and innovation and opens the doors to facilities that might not otherwise be thought of as, you know, test beds for new technology, really speaks to an innovative culture across an institution.”

Westlake believes one way to create such a culture is to allow students the opportunity to fail, which means allowing them to put into practice what they’re studying, rather than just sitting in a classroom or reading. Whether that means experimenting with an underwater robot in the pool or a creating a new resin for gloves used by the tennis or golf team, the goal is to turn the whole university into a living lab.

In a Q&A with VCU News, Westlake explained how he has hit the ground running in creating that environment.

 

What is your background?

I have a degree in cognitive science and my early foray was looking at connection networks that simulated dyslexia and looking for interventions to treat dyslexia. I’ve been a lifelong advocate of individuals with disabilities. A lot of my other research is on the use of biofeedback to help individuals on the autism spectrum succeed in higher education and employment.

In 2011, I founded a startup company — a tech company — that employed only individuals with autism to do software development and software testing. I have a background in tech as well, as sort of combining tech and disability and entrepreneurship. That experience running my own tech startup got me much more interested in the academic side of entrepreneurship.

The da Vinci Center.
The da Vinci Center.

 

Why did you want to come to VCU?

I was attracted to VCU primarily because I saw a university where students had a lot of grit. Where students had a real passion for sort of use-inspired research. Where they could put it in practice. I think it’s more than just a slogan — Make it Real. I really appreciated that sort of commitment. VCU is a great research university. It’s a large university with incredible assets, but not so expansive that you lose the human touch. When I was at ASU, we had 91,000 students. Initiatives and work, as exciting as it may be with 91,000 students, can at times not be very personal. It does not have the sense of community and I wanted to be part of a community both in the city in which I lived as well as the university.

VCU seemed to offer that. And combining grit with incredible faculty, incredible students and a great city, it just seemed like a great opportunity to join the team here. Having a medical center connected to the university offers incredible opportunities for new innovations that address wellness and health in a way that you can’t do if you don’t have a medical center.

 

Were there any da Vinci projects that you had heard about that you were especially interested in?

What I was most excited about, in listening to some of the da Vinci projects, was listening to students that had great ideas and had taken them through the ideation phase but really needed to apply them in the real world and make the leap into employment. I think it was my third day here; I connected a [Master of Product Innovation] student to a startup company looking to hire a new product engineer. I’m looking to bring that level of real-time rapid connection of graduate students doing incredible work to startups looking for top talent, and really establish VCU, the da Vinci Center and the MPI program as being a top source of talent across the nation.

 

A lot of the work that students are doing here is directly relevant to what other foundations and organizations are looking to fund, support and hire for.

What would you like to see from the da Vinci Center?

VCU is doing incredible research, doing incredible application of student projects and ideas with very little recognition for it. I was so happily surprised, as I went through the interview process, how rich the culture was here, how talented the students were, [yet] I hadn’t heard more about VCU in the national conversation. My goal is really to bring that national spotlight to the great work already being done. It’s [about] making connections with outside organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative University, the European Innovation Academy, Ashoka U — a lot of large national organizations that I’ve worked with in the past.

A lot of the work that students are doing here is directly relevant to what other foundations and organizations are looking to fund, support and hire for. We certainly have those ideas and that talent here and I want to make that connection.

 

The da Vinci Center is a partnership between the schools of BusinessArts and Engineering, plus the College of Humanities and Sciences, all of which stress the importance of creativity. Can you speak to that?

One shift that I think we’re seeing — that I’m hoping to bring to VCU through the da Vinci Center — is this idea that entrepreneurial thinking, innovative thinking, are skill sets and mindsets that are going to be absolutely essential for the 21st century. Whether we’re talking about creativity or innovation, these are skill sets that all students need to have regardless of major.

What I think is so impressive about the da Vinci Center being positioned to serve all students across the institution — to work with business, to work with arts, to work with humanities — is that creativity, imagination, innovation, entrepreneurial thinking are relevant in all disciplines in all fields. VCU recognizing that and establishing the da Vinci Center so many years prior really speaks to the vision and mission of the institution, and that’s again something that attracted me here. But also, I think that speaks to the students and faculty of the institution.

 

Garret Westlake, Ph.D.
Garret Westlake, Ph.D.

What are your interests outside of work?

Richmond definitely was on my short list of places to live because Outside magazine named it a top destination to live. I’m checking something off my bucket list, which is to mountain bike to work. I live on the southside of the James and I’m able to ride my bike over Belle Isle. Definitely mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, anything with a sense of adventure. I think I like to have my work day similarly where, you know when you whitewater kayak, one minute you’re cruising down a river and it’s peaceful and beautiful and the next minute you’re upside down struggling to figure out how to get right-side-up again? That’s what I do for fun and I think it’s very similar to entrepreneurship. It’s about risk taking, it’s about pushing your limits and sometimes you find yourself upside-down in pitch black, underwater, wondering how you got there. And then you find a way to right yourself and keep going down the river. I think that those two — outside of work and at work — align very nicely.

 

What would you like to add?

I’m really looking forward to getting to know as many faculty, students, leaders in the community [as possible]. My door’s always open. I would welcome any invitation to coffee, hike, trail run, meet that anyone wants to make. I’m really excited to hit the ground running and move quickly and learn as much as I possibly can and make us a world leader for innovation.

 

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