How the Student Innovation Center came to Iowa State University

The center of innovation:

How the Student Innovation Center came to be at Iowa State University

By Mallory Tope, Communications Assistant. | Published March 12, 2021

The Iowa State University Student Innovation Center opened in August 2020 as a place for all students from all colleges to collaborate, create and innovate. 

It all started when Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost of mechanical engineering, and Luis Rico-Gutierrez, dean of the College of Design, had an idea to create a way for their two colleges to work together. 

They pitched their ideas to distinguished alumni and industry partners. However, an anonymous donor expanded the idea to empower innovation campus-wide when they donated $30 million to create the Student Innovation Center, according to James Oliver, the center’s director. 

The total cost of funding for the Student Innovation Center was $84 million. About half of the money used to fund construction was from private donations, including corporate, alumni, and anonymous donors. Donors include Land O’Lakes, Boeing Co., and HNI Corp. 

In 2015, the Iowa Legislature approved $40 million in state support, nearly matching the $44 million in private donations. 

Construction began in 2015, with Architect firms KieranTimberlake and Substance Architecture selected for the project. In 2016, the Board of Regents approved the funding and plan for the construction and in 2017, demolition began. 

Construction of the Stepatorium in the Student Innovation Center, April 10, 2019. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
Construction in the Student Innovation Center, April 10, 2019. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

It was originally slated to open in April 2020, but like many other things, COVID-19 disrupted the construction of the building and pushed its opening to August. 

Various last-minute changes were needed in the building to make it conform to the campus and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines, according to Wendy Kisch, engineering administration and director of operations for the center. 

“I had to go through and reduce, change and configure furniture to make sure everything was six feet apart,” she said, adding that once things return to normal on campus, the Student Innovation Center will look different with added seating and functions.

One thing that won’t change, however, is the Student Innovation Center’s mission. 

Oliver said the Student Innovation Center was designed around the question, “how do we get students better prepared for the real world?”

For example, Oliver said, the idea of working with others who are not in your major is important for future careers. When students graduate and go to work, they’re often expected to collaborate with people who have different backgrounds and degrees. The Student Innovation Center aims to help prepare students for that. 

“How do we start to break down these barriers and get the creative people with the technical people?” he said. “That includes teaching and learning. It includes, ‘how do we integrate research into teaching and learning; how do we enable economic development and entrepreneurship community engagement?’”

In the development of the Student Innovation Center, subcommittees and all undergraduate colleges looked at these questions, as well as what they already had available on campus and what they needed more of. 

Every undergraduate college has a dedicated space in the Student Innovation Center where they can develop their own innovation and entrepreneurship, with spaces including a demonstration kitchen and gaming lab. 

There are also five general university classrooms in the center, including an auditorium, which any class can be assigned to, various meeting rooms, a media production suite, makerspaces, a patio and green roof for warmer weather, and more for all students to use. 

Sixty percent of the building is shared space for everyone to utilize, including resources for the entire community, such as: 

  • SPARKS Cafe, a student-run cafe, on the fourth floor, 
  • ISU Printing Services on the second floor, 
  • Innovate 1858, a lifestyle boutique that sells student-created products, on the entry-level. 
Exterior view of the Student Innovation Center
Sun sets on the exterior of the Student Innovation Center and Marston Water Tower on January 7, 2020. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

The Student Innovation Center also reached beyond its own walls with its online Innovation Programs and the Innovation Fellows Corps, both of which connect students with industry leaders and teach skills for innovation. 

As a former ISU student, Kisch said she understands what it’s like from a student’s perspective to have a building like the Student Innovation Center. She loves the building from its design to the lighting; she always discovers a new space in the building to enjoy. 

“When I was a student here, we did not have any spaces like [the Student Innovation Center,” Kitsch said. 

Oliver added, “It’s not just a building; it’s a vehicle to change the culture here at Iowa State.”