Mercer prides itself in providing students with a “major in changing the world”. The Mercer Innovation Center aims at providing students with the first stepping stool of that process.
During November of last year, President William D. Underwood announced the launch of the center. Dean of Stetson School of Business and Economics, Susan Gilbert, considers herself the co-founder of the center along with President Underwood. The center is a place where entrepreneurs can work together and use the technology available to create a thriving business. Despite the expectations the Innovation Center had, the center has not been as successful since it is not receiving as many students or start-up businesses.
The center is now done with renovations and is seeking to attract more students and potential businesses to use their office spaces. After the renovations, eight new offices were added to the center aside from the four existing office spaces, not counting conference rooms that were converted into offices.
KUDU Safari Braai and HeadNoise are Mercer Innovation fellows that are the only two tenants of the center. KUDU Safari Braai is a grill, griddle and fire pit. HeadNoise is a headband that delivers sounds through bone conduction. KUDU Safari Braai and Headnoise became fellows by winning the Mercer Innovation competition.
“Our first place winner was given $20,000 plus an apartment, plus the office, plus student interns to work for them. Our second place winner did not get the cash and did not need a place to live, but he gets an office, student interns and access to all that is Mercer,” Gilbert said.
The center hopes to get more startups to fill the remaining office spaces.
“We expect to get between five and seven more offices filled by winter,” Gilbert said.
This may be a problem with the recent surge in office spaces around the downtown Macon area.
“New Town Macon is an urban revitalization firm downtown, they just opened up a co-working office, the Industrial Authority has opened up a co-working office. So now, there’s this big supply of shared office spaces which the startups really want,” HeadNoise intern and Mercer Student Government Association member, Aaron Scherf, said.”It’s hard for us as being on campus to compete with someone that’s right downtown.”
The center, however, has the technological means to compete with the office spaces downtown, Scherf said.
“Now, that we are set to go, I think we have a much more technically advantageous position, we have better communication software, better furniture, better office space, better parking, so I think it’ll be good. We’ll get more businesses soon,” Scherf said.
Aside from trying to get more businesses to collaborate with the center, the center hopes to provide more events for students from different fields of study. Stephanie Howard is the center’s interim director as of October and is a Stetson marketing professor. The previous director, Samantha Lankford, resigned a month ago, Gilbert said. The advisory board is still in the process of finding a permanent director. In the meantime, Howard plans on placing more focus on programming.
“Programming is my main focus. We want to provide workshops and programming that can help them figure out how to develop a business plan and bring in entrepreneurs that have done it,” Howard said. “My focus is in making sure students are prepared by connecting local entrepreneurs with students so they have access to one another to gain experience.”
The center hosts several events per month, Gilbert said.
“But we don’t see those events really catching on to the general population,” Gilbert said. “They’re of great interest to a small number of students and these students tend to be either business students or engineering students.”
This problem could be connected to the lack of knowledge about the center, said junior Mercer student and brand ambassador for the center, Faiz Aly.
“There’s still people on campus that are not 100 percent aware of what the Mercer Innovation Center is and what it does,” Aly said. “I want to make sure that we get all the creative and entrepreneurially minded people to know of this place and use it.”
The center is open to all students and has a community room with whiteboards and group tables that are available for group work. In the entrance the room has a pool table with several chairs. There is also a larger room where there is a projector that could be used for lectures.
“The Innovation Center has the fastest internet speeds, we’re the only school in the middle Georgia region with the fastest internet speeds,” Aly said.
The center will also host events such as the Next Big Idea competition in November for students and the Mercer Innovation fellowship contest is open to the public later this school year.
“We’d love to hear from them [in] these contests,” Gilbert said.
The center works within Stetson but is multidisciplinary. It has three different purposes to fulfill within different areas of study, Gilbert said.
“One, it’s a learning opportunity because current business curricular, engineering, law, all of us, forget to teach what’s involved in starting your own company. Number two, it’s meant to help create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across campus and even within Macon,” Gilbert said. “Third, and probably most important, is that if we are successful in starting companies from ideas around the campus, then these ultimately become a growth engine for jobs, investment and economic activity in the region of middle Georgia.”