People say it’s going to take some fancy thinking to solve all the challenges in the world. The Garage and Bedrock, two innovation centers in Dover, are working on that.
The Garage at Delaware State University is a fully integrated entrepreneurship ecosystem and product ideation laboratory for DSU students, faculty and local community.
Bedrock at Dover Air Force Base is “Dover’s foundation for innovation, designed to leverage technology and off-the-shelf solutions to fix the military’s problems,” its website reads. In short, these centers are about finding new solutions for everything from problems with the daily commute to ending global poverty.
Both were recently founded—Bedrock in January 2019 and The Garage in January 2020—and built in forgotten spaces at their respective sites. Bedrock is in a former library and The Garage took over a storage space. Both programs are about finding uncommon solutions using common products, a little elbow grease and a lot of groundbreaking thinking.
The Garage is about getting students to think about becoming entrepreneurs, rather than just looking for a job, says Troy Farmer, director of The Garage. The idea behind the spaces is that people come with problems and ideas to develop solutions and new products.
“I like to challenge students to think more innovatively,” says Pedro Moore, a venture capitalist adviser who works with the students at The Garage. Students often come in with a single idea for a product. He encourages them to go deeper and think about what problem they are trying to solve with their product. This causes their thought process to shift, he says: “It’s solving a problem, more than cut and paste.”
At Bedrock, the problems being addressed generally have direct application to the Air Force. Airmen at the base are encouraged to bring their challenges and solutions to Bedrock for refinement and sometimes development. Results from ideas brought to Bedrock include putting colored lights over the entrances to the base so people arriving for work can tell right away whether the gate is open. A small thing, but a huge timesaver, says Master Sgt. Brandon Vazquez, chief technology officer.
“We’ve had ideas developed here that have been implemented throughout the Air Force,” says Maj. Nicholas Martini, Airlift Wing chief innovation officer at Bedrock. The ideas—like a headset connector that allows airmen on the flight line to hear one another—have saved time, money and lives, he says.
Members of both teams say everything they do is to inspire innovation.
How does one get that groundbreaking spirit going?
It starts with the name and the space. Bedrock refers to getting down to the bottom layer of a problem, while The Garage pays homage to all the innovators and entrepreneurs who started their businesses in their garages.
The spaces are just as creative as their names.
Solutions often grow best when they are fertilized with ideas from others, so both places are set up for collaboration in person and virtually. Bedrock has walls that move to open or close space as needed. It even has stadium seating in one corner near the presenter stage. At The Garage, innovators can write on the walls and the tables. Everything in both places, from original artwork to inspirational quotes on the walls, came about organically: painted, built or designed by one of the innovators from the base or the university.
Of course, both centers have computers available. They offer training for their interns and students on those computers, but that isn’t enough. Big new ideas need big new paraphernalia. Both centers have 3D printers, large screens where ideas can be shared, virtual reality gear and maker spaces. They also offer beanbag chairs, swings and space to lounge. Bedrock even has an isolation box for when the thinkers need to think quietly. People can build their ideas in real time or test them virtually and share their information and experience through a podcast.
“It’s our little slice of Silicon Valley,” says Martini. Even the uniforms at Bedrock are designed to open the channels of creativity. The staff wear polo shirts with no rank insignia. “Rank can be a barrier,” Martini points out.
At The Garage, the motto is that it is for “students of problems, not disciplines.” People from diverse walks of life and different majors learn to connect their disciplines for better outcomes. Their goals for success are aligned with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. DSU students collaborate with other students globally to find solutions for problems such as poverty and the need for clean water. Since January 2021, The Garage has served more than 550 students and faculty on projects from developing gaming software to starting new business ventures.
“There’s great synergy for The Garage,” Farmer says. “It’s innovation every step of the way.”
To get more people involved in thinking in an entrepreneurial way, organizers at The Garage hosts networking and ideation sessions, evening programs in augmented virtual reality and community coffees with entrepreneurs.
Some of it is just fun, like the hands-on lesson on how to make fizzy bath balls. The product was the bath ball, but the idea was to get the students thinking about the integration of science and business, says Lillie L. Crawford, director of the Delaware Center for Enterprise Development within the College of Business. The Garage is hoping to acquire industrial sewing machines and other tools to expand its maker space capabilities.
They are always looking to expand. A new element this year is the Innovation Café. Students studying hospitality at the school run the café, where people can pick up a snack or coffee, or perhaps pitch a new idea. Chemistry students study food science there, Farmer says. Ideas for snack foods are presented to the café’s food partner company, Rap Snacks, for possible development and distribution.
Both centers also emphasize collaboration. Bedrock accepts interns from different specialties to work and learn at the center for four months. The interns come with ideas they want to explore but gain insight into other areas at the base while also taking classes in leadership skills. Interns say they leave Bedrock with a whole new mindset. Their superiors agree to let the interns go for the four months because they get back so much more. “The innovative ideas coming out of Bedrock have fundamentally changed the way we do things at the 436 OSS and across Team Dover,” says Lt. Col. Steven Hawkins, 436th Operations Support Squadron commander.
To get more people using the space and realizing the potential there, Bedrock opens its rooms for conferences, meetings and completing paperwork. “We want to show the airmen what’s in the realm of possibility,” says David Jackson, 512 Airlift Wing chief innovation officer. “Once you show people things are possible, it starts steamrolling and we can have change.”
Staff at both facilities agree they are not in the business of negativity. They might say an idea needs a little work, but they don’t generally say no. “Know your people. Empower your people,” Vazquez says. “Our doors are open to anyone.”
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