UM opens Innovation Factory to bolster creative thinking, entrepreneurs

Innovation Factory co-director Elizabeth Dove talks with GeoFli co-founder Nick Shontz (center) and an IFtern with the Tinkerspace in the background. (Katy Spence/MHTBA.

Something new is brewing at the University of Montana, though some pieces looked familiar during a tour of the Innovation Factory on the second floor of the University Center. There’s a tailgate-turned-stereo, a repurposed monitor from the geography department, and letters from a vinyl sign from Home Resource.

“This whole room has been repurposed and renewed, which is a real fundamental part of innovation,” said Elizabeth Dove, a UM art professor and co-director of the Innovation Factory. “It’s so frequent that people can make that association of innovation as being tech and being ‘the new’ instead of being a creative reuse and renewal and a reimagining of what is.”

The Innovation Factory is the brain-child of Scott Whittenburg, vice president for Research and Creative Scholarship at UM. It’s intended to be a gathering place for entrepreneurs and creatives to meet, collaborate and take action.

With elements of a makerspace, business incubator and co-working space, the Innovation Factory provides all the elements needed for innovators to build big ideas and turn them into reality. It also kicks off “30 Days of Innovation,” which is slated to play out over the month of November.

Brad Allen, a UM sculpture professor and co-director, said the Innovation Factory can help students from different majors cross paths in ways they might not have before.

“Maybe a graduate student in ecology builds out an environment with the help of an art student that leads to a side business that’s run through (Blackstone LaunchPad),” Allen said.

Located in the former University Bookstore warehouse, the Innovation Factory’s team has removed most interior walls and enclosed the environment in glass. It represents a concerted effort to be transparent and interact with the larger community.

The Innovation Factory is composed of several spaces. The large, open room filled with whiteboards, furniture and a monitor array can be used for meeting or working. In the corner sits a Tinkerspace, meant to help users explore “three dimensional opportunities,” Allen said.

Any time the Innovation Factory is open, users can utilize 3D printers, scanners, sewing machines and more to conduct research or cultivate creativity in the Tinkerspace.

Housed in a separate room is the Worklab, an industrial makerspace which features a large-scale laser cutter, sticker maker, traditional tools and various printers. Users can fabricate using large materials like wood and metal, and Allen hopes to add a larger 3D printer that can print full-sized furniture.

UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad, which provides guidance and resources to UM students, faculty and alumni entrepreneurs, is already housed in the co-working space. It’s a more traditional office setting with workspaces and a meeting room.

LaunchPad Director Paul Gladen said the new space “feels like home.”

“We’re super excited to be in the Innovation Factory,” Gladen said. “The LaunchPad is helping students explore entrepreneurship as a viable career path and, for me, innovation is frequently the front end of entrepreneurship. It’s about innovating, creating, designing, testing, and this is a space to encourage that.”

Gladen added that the interdisciplinary focus, and community and cross-campus partnerships that the Innovation Factory plans to foster, are key to the LaunchPad’s own mission.

Brad Allen, co-director of the Innovation Factory, demonstrates the capabilities of a monitor array donated by the geography department. (Katy Spence/MHTBA)

One manifestation of this goal is the new door to the adjacent UM Game Room. Allen said it’s not only a connection to relaxation and recreation, but a symbol of their partnership with the newly-formed UM Esports program and its forthcoming game design and interactive media degree through the School of Media Arts.

“It’s going to be, I think, a significant recruitment opportunity as we’re the first institution in Montana that’s actually dealing with games, that has developed a game design degree,” Dove said. “It should be online for next year.”

The Innovation Factory is also developing a 12-credit certificate to promote interdisciplinary studies and innovation across campus. Students can customize a track of various related courses with different emphases, such as a STEM track or nonprofit track.

The space officially opens on today (Nov. 8), with Missoula Mayor John Engen emceeing a celebration from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the UC Ballroom, which will also feature an interactive panel of Missoula leaders.

The event kicks off 30 Days of Innovation, a series of event inviting students, faculty and community members to create, collaborate and collide in the Innovation Factory, on campus, and in the community.