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After years of planning, Cal Poly Pomona’s new production lab, designed as an entrepreneurial incubator to turn bright ideas into market-ready realities, is getting down to business.

Since launching the university’s Student Innovation Idea Lab, or iLab, four years ago, Professor Olukemi Sawyerr has been looking for a place where CPP students can take their ideas for products and businesses from the drawing board to the marketplace.

She found it just two miles east of the university at Ganesha High in Pomona, where the new Innovation Orchard has also become a resource for high school students who can simultaneously earn college credit.

The lab is equipped with the latest design and prototyping equipment, including 3-D printers, laser cutters, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machines, power tools and even paintbrushes. And it also houses individual spaces for students to use as offices for their ventures, as well as a conference room for meetings.

Students have already found business opportunities, says Innovation Orchard technician and CPP junior Julia Valenti, who is studying mechanical engineering.

One department at Cal Poly Pomona ordered plastic name badges after admiring the ones that Innovation Orchard created and wore, Valenti says. The students produced the professional-quality nameplates at a fraction of the cost of a traditional vendor.

When students in the kinesiology department needed a new life-size, anatomically correct human skeleton model, Tucker Dunbar, IO 3D printing specialist, assisted them in making one using a 3-D printer.

“As a student at CPP, you have all these resources,” Valenti says. “This is where you come when you have an idea. I love to use this place. It has made me see business in a different way.”

Students offer a fresh perspective when attacking problems, whether in business or other fields, Sawyerr says. “Students have some really, really good ideas.”

But success as an entrepreneur also requires tenacity, fortitude and confidence.

“Execution is everything. It’s a lot of work. It’s not an easy road. It’s easier to get a job and collect a paycheck,” Sawyerr says. “But if you are really passionate about your idea, you will pursue it.”

“We teach them entrepreneurship by having them be entrepreneurs. We are a learn-by-doing institution.”

Professor Olukemi Sawyerr speaks at the grand opening of Innovation Orchard at Ganesha High School, part of the Student Innovation Idea Lab for Cal Poly Pomona.Since its soft opening in 2018, students from both campuses have been making use of Innovation Orchard. Cal Poly Pomona students participated in an eight-week boot camp last summer to further develop their startup concepts. At the end of the boot camp, investors listened to students pitch their business ideas. Several ideas attracted investors’ interest.

In the 2018-19 academic year, both campuses are recruiting students into the program. So far, about a dozen college students and 10 high school students have been trained to use the equipment. Sawyerr, currently the interim assistant vice president for academic innovation, hopes it will be as successful as the iLab at Cal Poly Pomona, which served more than 1,350 students in 2017-18.

Armando Cordero, a senior majoring in manufacturing engineering, is finishing up a prototype for his product idea in the Innovation Orchard. It’s a lightweight yet powerful electric scooter that folds up small enough to fit inside a standard backpack. The concept is inspired by his experience using a skateboard as a mode of transportation on campus.

“I thought, ‘If I could only make something that’s easier,’ ” he says.

Cordero set out to devise a solution, and the iLab and Innovation Orchard became the ideal incubator and maker space.

Using a carefully considered folding structure, the latest technology in efficient electric motors and a manufacturing process with low-cost mass production in mind, Cordero is putting the finishing touches on his design.

“It goes up any hill at Cal Poly Pomona,” says Cordero, who plans to have four working prototypes ready in 2019. “I’m trying to apply what I learned in school.”

Innovation Orchard is deeply rooted in collaboration. Ganesha provides the space and the high school instruction, while Cal Poly Pomona provides the crucial equipment and furniture, as well as college-level teaching.

High school seniors taking part in the program earn college credits, according to Ganesha teacher and career technical education instructor Jacqueline Jones.

“The lab is awesome, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what our students produce, so it’s very exciting,” Jones says. “They are starting to think like entrepreneurs and realize that anyone can be an entrepreneur. You just have to think like one.”

The high school participants meet once a week with their college counterparts for a joint lecture or presentation, says Ganesha student Nathan Cruz. He plans to study computer science in college.

The grand opening of Innovation Orchard at Ganesha High School, part of the Student Innovation Idea Lab for Cal Poly Pomona.“Being an entrepreneur is something that I’ve been interested in,” he says. “That’s the reason I took this class — to dip my feet in, test the waters and see what it’s like.”

Ganesha student Vicente Carrillo says he has given thought to becoming an entrepreneur and is working on an electronic wearable device.

“I want to be a personal trainer and build my own business,” he says. He’s working on a bracelet that could help people with ADHD. “The wearable tech uses vibrations to help keep users focused.”

Through the joint class, he learns about creating and implementing ideas, as well as effectively communicating them to others, Carrillo says. It offers valuable experience in public speaking.

Having an opportunity to work alongside college students is advantageous for the high school students, says Jones, who teaches accounting, multimedia technology and technology education.

“It gives our high school students an opportunity to see what will be expected of them at the college level,” she says. “Someone who’s not too much older than them giving them some insight into college life.”

Sawyerr also finds value in the partnership and working together. At their core, the iLab and Innovation Orchard teach problem-solving.

“We want our students to be able to apply their disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems,” she says. “We want our students to understand that they have the capacity to solve the problems they see every day.

“They don’t have to turn it into being an entrepreneur. You could use it at home, at church, in the community.”

Rapid advances in technology have created a vast number of thriving career fields that did not exist even just a few years ago, according to Sawyerr. Skills honed at Innovation Orchard will be valuable to the students no matter what route they ultimately take in life.

“We’re very interested in the future of work,” Sawyerr says. “You don’t know what the future of the job field is going to be, so we try to prepare students to fit in, giving them additional tools in their tool kits.”

By Brian Day
Published June 3, 2019