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A $45 Million Experiment To Turn Dorms Into Incubators

At Lassonde Studios, dorm life and startup culture collide, as aspiring entrepreneurs work, live, eat, and play all in one place.

For University of Utah sophomore Jocee Porter, alone time is overrated. When she entered the school, the computer engineering major says she spent a lot of time hunkered down in the library, doing hours of research on behalf of the school’s nuclear reactor. She lived in a small apartment with three other women, but mostly hung out in her room. One year later, things look very different.

Soaring ceilings, exposed piping, and glossy, concrete floors dominate the wide open industrial space. Over here, there’s a gathering area defined by a colorful rug and modern couches and chairs; over there, meeting tables flocked by rolling white boards. Nearby, you can pop into a privacy booth whimsically made to resemble one of London’s iconic red telephone boxes. There are picnic benches, an arcade console, a wall bearing the phrase “Dream big. Change the world,” and a 24-hour cafe.

No, this is not one of Silicon Valley’s many office spaces cum playground; it’s Lassonde Studios, a $45 million experiment in education where Porter is among 400 aspiring entrepreneurs chosen to live and work in the same building.

The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, named for founder and alumnus Pierre Lassonde, a successful mining entrepreneur who financially backed the program, began operations in 2001. Open to students from any major, the institute hosts networking events, workshops, business-plan competitions, and more. The idea is to help students understand the practical applications of what they learn in the classroom. According to Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the institute, the program has “done a pretty good job of having 10 to 15 really good companies coming out of the students every year.” So, what next?

For the answer, they turned to their students.

“Students said, ‘This isn’t really just a job I go to. It’s what I eat, sleep, and breath,’” says D’Ambrosio. “‘I want to be able to do that at 2 a.m. or 2 o’clock in the afternoon.’”

Students wanted to connect across disciplines—where could a designer find an engineer? And they wanted a place to actually build prototypes, with tools and space. It was a lightbulb moment: Why not combine a maker space with a living space? The idea for Lassonde Studios was born.

To help solve the problem of what the space was going to be, the university turned to architect Mehrdad Yazdani of Cannon Design’s Yazdani Studio. Yazdani’s previous projects include a medical research center In Buffalo, New York, that uses design to encourage greater collaboration between doctors and researchers, and a modernizing overhaul of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Normally, says Yazdani, architects design based on precedent, but for this project, his team pushed that norm aside. “We saw this as an opportunity to really invent a new typology that, I dare to say, does not exist on any—at least U.S. campus—that I’m aware of,” he says.

He presented the university with several scenarios, each increasingly radical, all which included student housing combined with an amped-up version of the mythical garage that entrepreneurial icons like Steve Jobs are said to have emerged from. In its most radical form, Yazdani proposed that rather than live close to the garage, students live in the garage. D’Ambrosio and his team—who had visited glitzy tech campuses as part of their research—were on board for unconventional.

The resulting facility, which opened to students in August 2016, is four floors of residential space atop a 20,000-square-foot maker space, engineered to foster community, collaboration, and flexibility. Students live in one of three kinds of living quarters: a double or single room in a “cluster” of other students (the most like a classic dorm), a loft, where three to four students live in the same room and share a common space and kitchen, and suites of “pods,” small, private units in groups of 20.

The first 400 residents were chosen based on a decidedly open application process; after filling in rudimentary info, students are prompted to “Send us a link to a video, blog, portfolio, or some type of personal statement. Don’t sweat it. Whatever works, we just want to get to know you!”

D’Ambrosio explained that they wanted to fill the space with students from many majors and with different talents. In the end, 35 majors were represented. They also accepted applications from freshmen and upperclassmen. (The inaugural group of 400 was 50% freshman.) The idea was to throw a bunch of different backgrounds in a box, shake, and hope something interesting came out.

The concrete structure allows the 160,000-square-foot building to be both longer horizontally and have taller floor-to-floor space than other materials would. Walls are used sparingly; instead, areas are divided up by furniture that can be reconfigured on a whim. “It’s not like a museum,” says D’Ambrosio. “Or a classroom.”

Each wing has a different type of housing planned around an irregular structural grid built for easy modification. This malleable space is “future-proof,” says Yazdani. For instance, if the university finds there is a greater demand for lofts than pods, they can easily tear out one kind of housing and replace it with another. The building can pivot, like any good startup.

The hybrid space is engineered for maximum interaction; you’d be hard-pressed to get a desk of any authority into the bedrooms. This entices Lossande’s 400 students to meet in common spaces. The university rejected the idea of “smart” washers housed in the basement that can message students when their socks are dry, opting for free laundry on every floor—just another opportunity to gather and brainstorm. The downstairs cafe is open to residents 24 hours a day, as is the innovation hangar, where students can avail themselves of equipment like 3D printers. (Any student, whether a resident or not, can use the hangar from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.)

Outsiders have taken note of the unusual configuration, and the building was recently named a finalist in the SXSW Learn by Design competition that recognizes the educational impact of physical spaces.

Environmental nudging has worked on Porter, who says she is an extrovert and routinely stays up until 1 a.m. spitballing with others who want to start businesses before they graduate.

Porter now runs a nonprofit, Celebrate Every Day, which loans out prom dresses for free to Utah high-school students. She calls the studios “the most social building on campus.”

“We’re forced to network, basically,” says Porter. “I’ve met so many people that I can call on for so many favors 10 years from now. I know that when I start another company, they’re going to be the people to help me or to give me advice or be business partners.”

The studios host campus-wide events, but also many exclusive to residents. Among those Porter recently took part in were a workshop on growing indoor gardens and a dinner with the founders of Skullcandy, a global headphone brand.

Just being in close proximity to other would-be entrepreneurs can be an advantage; student Mica Sloan (who informed Fast Company that he was receiving our call from “one of the most comfortable couches I’ve experienced in my life”) said that moving into the studios was a “gamble” that paid off. He was roomed with business student Aidan Daoussis, who was already working on an idea to create a portable energy source for cell phones contained within a single cord. Sloan, a bioengineering major, helped Daoussis build a prototype, and Portal Power was born. “If I hadn’t been randomly assigned a roommate by the computer we never would have met–this never would have happened,” says Sloan.

Other residents have launched companies around bike tools, wall art, and vintage clothing.

Plenty of successful companies—from Dell to Facebook—were famously founded in run-of-the-mill dorm rooms. Whether or not multiplying the environment will multiply successes remains to be seen. Lassonde Studios is a work in progress by design. The school already has plans to add in new materials based on resident surveys, such as metal working equipment. And while the studios attracted a spectrum of majors, women make up only about 37% of the residents. D’Ambrosio hopes that growing student familiarity, as well as working to make the program even more appealing to students outside male-heavy business and engineering majors, will help balance out this ratio in the future.

Finally, students will have to engage to remain within the modern walls of the studios.

“Yes, it’s a really cool building and it’s centrally located on campus,” says D’Ambrosio. “But if you’re going to live here, we want you to contribute to the community.”

[Photos: Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah]

About the author

Andy Wright is a journalist based out of San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Matter, Popular Mechanics, Atlas Obscura, Pacific Standard and others.

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