iCenter Aims to Create Culture of Innovation on Campus

Evan Green, Managing Editor

Members of the iCenter, Assistant Director Paige Leonard and one of the iCenter students, Jaxon Smith, stand in the Corbly Hall iCenter classroom. (Evan Green)

Over the last few years, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation—better known as the iCenter—has served as a major force to develop a culture of innovation and creativity on campus. 

The iCenter, founded in 2018, focuses on three main programs: university innovation, the entrepreneurship pathway within West Virginia Career Technical Education and the Brad D. Smith Student Incubator.

The founder of the iCenter, Dr. Ben Eng, was inspired to create the program after Marshall hosted Innovating for Impact, a problem-solving competition that utilized a problem-solving model known as design thinking. The iCenter was formed in order to follow up on this competition and begin to develop a culture of innovation on campus.

“Design thinking is a methodology to solve human-centered problems and problems that matter in the world,” Paige Leonard, assistant director of the iCenter, said. 

Design thinking, specifically the Intuit-created version of design thinking, Design for Delight, is a problem-solving model that serves as the backbone of the iCenter’s various programs. It involves speaking with customers, which the iCenter defines as whoever they are solving a problem for, to better understand the problems they are facing. 

One of the main programs of the iCenter is their University Innovation trainings and workshops, which are designed to teach the principles of design thinking through hands-on activities that allow participants to better connect and empathize with their customers.

Most recently, a number of these workshops have been held for various groups of Marshall faculty and staff to help them learn the principles of design thinking and determine how they can apply those principles to their chosen discipline. 

These staff trainings also included direct feedback from customers, which would primarily be students. Because of this, part of the training was dedicated to students speaking to the staff members regarding their concerns and how things could be improved for students.

Additionally, the iCenter works with other sponsors throughout the state to help create a curriculum for the entrepreneurship pathway that high school students can choose to pursue at West Virginia Technical Schools.

“At the iCenter, it’s really just me and Ben Eng. We’re the only full-time people, and so we know we want to make Marshall as innovative as possible, and we know that the two of us can’t do that by ourselves; we need a whole group,” Leonard said. 

In order to spread this culture of innovation across campus, the iCenter plans to designate certain individuals as Innovation Catalysts: people identified during design thinking trainings as strong innovators. 

These innovation catalysts will work with the iCenter to apply the principles of design thinking to different parts of the university.

“We would love to have an Innovation Catalyst within each department on campus here so that they can be that person that helps solve challenges on Marshall’s campus and create this constant state of improvement,” Leonard said.

A student-led project also involves applying the same Innovation Catalyst concept to student organizations on campus to allow them to utilize design thinking in their problem-solving.

One of the other main programs administered by the iCenter is the Brad D. Smith Student Incubator. This program was established in 2019 to give students an opportunity to solve real-world challenges in a classroom setting. 

The class provides students with expertise from Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, real-world innovators who help guide the students as they attempt to solve their chosen problem using the principles of design thinking. 

“From my work with the student incubator, I’ve learned how powerful of a tool design thinking is and how I can implement it into every part of my studies,” Jaxon Smith, a sophomore student who has been a part of the incubator since its first semester in the spring of 2021, said. “The staff at the iCenter have helped me in becoming more connected in Huntington and building better relationships with community members. They’ve taught me about creative thinking and marketing in a number of ways.”

Smith’s project, Lots for Change, is a startup company designed to create community spaces around Huntington by converting abandoned lots in the area into green spaces. The project was co-founded with Olivia Andrew-Vaughan, another sophomore, and plans to begin its first project within the next year.

Students receive three credit hours for taking the course, but can only enroll in the class after interviewing with Leonard and Eng to determine if they are a good fit for the program.

“Ben and I are passionate about student success. That’s like our number one focus. They’re the ones who we are all here for,” Leonard said. “If a student is interested in getting involved with the Brad D. Smith Student Incubator, just think of a problem that you’re passionate about solving and reach out to us.”

Currently, the iCenter is located on the third floor of Corbly Hall but will move to the new Brad D. Smith School of Business building on Fourth Avenue once it opens.