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University of Iowa halts - for now - 'Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation'

Hold placed amid state budget cuts comes after paying Bruce Mau $250,000 to consult

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — After paying an internationally known consultant more than $250,000 to shepherd creation of a “Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation” to meet a growing demand for cultivating business ideas, the University of Iowa is putting the project on ice — for now.

The hold is tied to a five-month moratorium on new campus construction that UI President Bruce Harreld imposed in April in response to repeated state budget cuts he said amount to “generational disinvestment” in Iowa’s public higher education.

“The future of the project will be reassessed with all other building projects following the end of the moratorium,” which is scheduled for Sept. 15, UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said.

When discussed last year as an initiative of the UI Henry B. Tippie College of Business, the project didn’t necessarily hinge on new construction. Dean Sarah Gardial told The Gazette the goal was to get the center functioning in some capacity within 18 months, regardless of its location.

“Bricks and mortar” — either a new building or repurposed campus space — would come eventually, she said.

Even as the university scrambles to absorb millions in state budget cuts by halting new construction, freezing pay, closing campus centers and increasing tuition, administrators continue to highlight UI entrepreneurial endeavors as a point of pride and potential as they seek new revenue sources.

“We continue to discuss the center from a conceptual level, its mission and organization, and what type of programming it will offer.” Bassett wrote in an email this week. “The University of Iowa also continues to actively engage partners across campus and the community in order to discuss the future of the center and innovation on the university campus in general.”

Discussion sessions on a potential new center gained broad attention last fall, but UI leaders did not say if subsequent ones are planned.

The Henry B. Tippie College of Business began pursuing the notion of an entrepreneurial center in earnest last year with a February request for proposals from consultants interested in helping “shape the future of its programming and facilities for innovation and entrepreneurship education.”

The university chose Bruce Mau and his Massive Change Network after he laid out an 18-week process for envisioning “the purpose, operating model, guiding principles, cultural program, pedagogical experience, and impact of building a Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation at The University of Iowa.”

The university in June 2017 signed a contract with the Massive Change Network to pay $250,000 — plus no more than $35,000 for expenses — for a process involving three, two-day “design leadership workshops.”

Mau facilitated those workshops, which included local participation from Iowa City business owner Nate Kaeding, Iowa City Area Development Group President Mark Nolte, Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce President Kim Casko and Tara Cronbaugh, owner of the Java House, which grew out of her time as a student.

The university last summer also listed a new $30 million entrepreneurial center among anticipated capital projects for 2018, according to Board of Regents documents. It identified a possible site in a board request to buy properties at 109 E. Market St. and 128 Clinton St. for $2.7 million.

Gardial said then that although those properties sit near the UI Pappajohn Business Building, a location for the new center had “become more fluid.”

But she stressed a growing demand for one by noting the UI Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory — based in a converted fraternity house — includes just 16 offices, a small co-working space and a conference room. The lab can accommodate 25 teams at any given time, even as UI entrepreneurship programming produces 60 to 80 ventures a year.

The college paid Mau and his firm from private donor funds and planned to finance the entire project through donations.

David Hensley, executive director for the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, on Thursday didn’t discuss specifics about the hold on an innovation facility but said — generally — the university continues to “develop and implement programs to support student entrepreneurship across our entire campus.”

“The demand for entrepreneurship education and support continues to grow, with more and more exciting student ideas coming forward all the time,” he said in an email. “We are working with university and community partners to enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem to accelerate innovation and economic development more broadly.”

Java House founder Cronbaugh said she’s hopeful the effort will continue after the UI ends its moratorium.

“I know it’s something the university is super passionate about,” she said.

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