IDEA Labs: From Classroom to Real World

Timeline 2 ImageMost college students can easily name some of the most successful business people – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Oprah Winfrey. But rarely do they act upon ideas that they have.

So often I have heard, “There is just so little time, and I’m not sure if my idea is good enough to be worth it” or “This solution might help with the efficiency, but it’s not the cure to cancer” or “I don’t have an idea that I could develop, how can I get into entrepreneurship?”

However, unknown to most Washington University in St. Louis students, St. Louis and WUSTL are centers of the entrepreneurship in the Midwest. St. Louis has been recognized by the St. Louis Regional Business Chamber as well as by Forbes, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, and CNBC as the home to the world’s largest business plan competition and the nation’s fastest growing incubator, especially for high-tech and information entrepreneurial technology startups. And there’s only more support for those who are interested.

For example, the Olin Cup Competition, founded by WUSTL’s Olin Business School, was created to give students an opportunity to develop original business plans while honing their analytical and presentation skills, which help them gain firsthand entrepreneurship experience. The Cup is awarded to those teams that best exemplify entrepreneurial spirit, strategic business thinking, and high quality deliverables. Olin School’s entrepreneurship program, the Hatchery, links students to outside entrepreneurs who have promising ideas but who lack capital, business experience, or both. Today, the entrepreneurship program at Washington University continues into develop as one of the finest in the country. The program is expanding, creating more collaboration across campus and within St. Louis by playing a key role in the building of an innovation environment.

One of such collaborations is IDEA Labs, a relatively recent bioengineering and design incubator that unites WUSTL the medical, business, engineering schools, as well as PhD programs, faculty, staff, and local entrepreneurs to tackle unmet needs in healthcare delivery and clinical medicine. The project began in 2011 when Josh Siegle and a group of medical students were presented with a patient who was mostly paralyzed after a stroke and only utilized one button to control a communication screen. The group immediately saw a better design of the computer for a patient with facility of the whole hand, not just one finger. This was essentially the first IDEA Labs project. After the initial project, the group was approached by many other patients and physicians who had suggestions of how to improve medical system. From there, IDEA Labs and its problem bank was born. Now the problem bank consists of more than one hundred and fifty problems submitted by doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and therapists. Having your own idea is not essential to becoming involved in the movement. IDEA Labs welcomes students from all majors because interdisciplinary teams are well-rounded and consider more aspects of the business plan. Graduate students, even those who are on a set career path like the MD-PhD program, take part in this program, which gives them the option of running their own company in the future. The group that placed first in IDEA Lab’s Demo Day competition last year, Data Dog, is developing a system for enhancing therapy for stress and anxiety disorders through an app and wearable technology. Moreover, they have received significant funding from venture capitalists. Beta testing of the app begins in a few weeks.

In short, if you do have a groundbreaking idea, act upon it. Mentors and the Skandalaris Center can help develop your idea. Blake Marggraff, a senior biology major says that WUSTL has been very instrumental in the development of his entrepreneurial spirit: “WUSTL does a great job of mixing the hard sciences and challenging coursework with opportunities to expand in the directions they choose.” WUSTL’s flexibility allowed him to take many different types of classes, not just those in his major, giving him free rein to pursue his interests. Also, through WUSTL, he attended several conferences and met his future co-founders for his first company: Betaversity. Blake describes his startup as “an education technology company that began as a consultancy for engineering departments … [and] was all based on the Stanford model of learning-by-doing and design thinking.” This goal is packaged in Betaversity’s main product: BetaBox, a mobile learning lab in a shipping container with the most recent rapid prototyping technology and design thinking methodologies. Betaversity now rents or sells BetaBoxes that have helped 20,000-250,000 people, mostly university students. Those numbers only increase every day.

But in reality, entrepreneurs are not geniuses who have lightbulb ideas. Instead, they are problem solvers who identify a problem they are passionate about and upon which they want to improve. They utilize resources around them to develop a solution, something WUSTL students do every day in class and in clubs. If they were to give one piece of advice to WUSTL students, both Josh Siegle and Blake Marggraff emphasize, “You may be surprised to find out that there is so much to learn outside of the classroom. Your future career may happen to be shaped more by your outside activities than class work.” Every WUSTL student can make a positive change on the world in which we live – they just need to take that first step.


Connie Gan is a junior from Hudson, Ohio. She can be reached at

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