SALT LAKE CITY — While the year-old, $45 million Lassonde Studios building at the University of Utah is an award-winning, copper-clad statement in modern architecture, featuring austere interiors heavy on concrete, stone and steel, the space has served to bring budding student entrepreneurs out of the woodwork with nearly 300 business startups underway and more in the offing.
The facility is a visual standout in its central campus location, but it’s also an intentional outlier in how it functions academically, with student-driven program offerings and a literal open-door policy that does not require participants to sign up or pay fees.
As the latest asset for the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which was founded in 2001 and now operates as an interdisciplinary division of the U.’s David Eccles School of Business, Executive Director Troy D’Ambrosio said Lassonde Studios has been an unequivocal success.
“This approach, both with the facility and the programming … definitely had a leap of faith element,” D’Ambrosio said. “But from all measures it seems to be performing very, very well.”
That performance success includes outcomes from the experiment of combining student housing with a learning/workspace. Lassonde Studios has an expansive working and collaboration space on the first floor, topped with four floors of residential accommodations that house 400 students, rather than the more traditional model of grouping residential facilities away from classrooms at the edges of campus.
“The residential component of this and its siting in the middle of campus rather than an outboard location is an important part of the effort to create a very collaboration-friendly environment,” D’Ambrosio said. “And we’re seeing that with work and development happening throughout the building where these students are living and studying and most importantly talking to each other.”
The impact of the facility and its resources extends far beyond the 400 live-in participants.
D’Ambrosio said some 5,000 students participated in Lassonde programming, and efforts are already underway to expand programming in anticipation of that number continuing to grow.
What’s fueling the interest? D’Ambrosio said interest, pre-Lassonde Studio, was already there. It was just hard to see.
“Previously, we didn’t have an environment like this for students who had an interest in, or were already engaged with, business startup efforts,” he said. “Now we have built a community space for the inventor, entrepreneur and tinkerer.
“And we learned how many students we had here, dispersed across many disciplines, who were either already working on a business idea or ready to jump in. It was a lot more than we would have guessed.”
And jumping into the mix at Lassonde Studios is very much designed to be barricade-free.
“What we want to do is reduce the barriers to students actually doing it, actually chasing their idea,” D’Ambrosio said. “We want them to launch an app or build the prototype or scale up what they’re already doing.
“We’re the business laboratory that students can come into from any discipline and try doing what they want to do. And all they have to do is walk through the door.”
Graduate business student Darby Bailey McDonough and her entrepreneurial pursuit typify the ease of entry that D’Ambrosio and his team have built into the studio.
McDonough, who is working on a master’s degree in information systems, said she had it in mind to start a business when she made the decision to return to the U. for graduate work, but it’s what she connected with at Lassonde that got the startup wheels moving forward.
“I had heard about the studio and was familiar with this kind of approach that’s been happening with tech industries in the Bay Area,” she said. “So I literally just went there, walked in and started talking to people.”
In fairly short order, McDonough had gotten connected with D’Ambrosio, with whom she sat down for a one-on-one meeting to discuss an idea she had.
“(D’Ambrosio) is very helpful and accessible, and I was at a mentoring session with him talking through a different business idea I had,” McDonough said. “And the idea just popped into my mind.”
What popped was the inspiration to switch from her concept for a single-serving, shelf-stable, cold-brew coffee packet that would just require the addition of water to an icy cold coffee treat on a stick. And Coffee Pops was born.
McDonough had already won a small grant for the cold-brew coffee idea, but after her pivot to pops, she competed for and won a slot in a Lassonde summer program called Rush to Revenue. Now she’s rushing with her co-founder, John Faulkner, to get a Coffee Pop in the hands of every customer who wants one.
D’Ambrosio said he and his staff have worked to create a lot of entry points and program options that enable startup teams to find help, regardless of where they are in the business evolution arc when they engage Lassonde. That includes access to a wide slate of experts who have skill sets and knowledge to share critical information, and problem-solving strategies, that help keep momentum moving forward.
“Bringing the resources into the physical space, the right tool, the right expertise, helps compress the timeframe for these startup efforts,” D’Ambrosio said. “That concentration of assets and the willingness of people to work together and help each other is definitely one of the keys.”
Bringing out the best in student entrepreneurs and providing exactly what they need to build businesses are central tenets at Lassonde, said Randall Taylor, the dean of the David Eccles School of Business.
“People unifying around creating something is at Lassonde’s core,” he said. “The collaborative environment leads to a remarkable energy from these students.”
Taylor said he’s particularly pleased with the wide range of academic areas represented at Lassonde, with students from 44 academic study areas, ranging from freshmen to doctorate candidates.
U. President David Pershing also lauded the multidisciplinary energy and noted that it’s been critical to the facility’s early success.
“Its creative spaces attract students from all over campus who have ideas they want to prototype, test and launch as products and businesses — often in collaboration with other students who are pursuing different majors,” Pershing said.
“Lassonde Studios is able to bring students together who have diverse knowledge bases, and that is a fundamental reason it is a success. We are thrilled by what’s been accomplished so far in year one,” he said.
With the first academic year now behind them, D’Ambrosio said Lassonde will be adding program content and working to keep up with the growing group of students who see their futures as business owners rather than employees.
And the walk-in-and-get-to-work approach that’s seen great success thus far will continue to be the currency of the realm.
“Our students are getting very practical skills that aren’t learned nearly as well in a class,” D’Ambrosio said. “Business building, collaborative work groups and real-world experiences are, we think, preparing them well for the changing world of work.”
To learn more about the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and Lassonde Studios, visit lassonde.utah.edu.