If all goes as planned, in about a year downtown Statesboro should be home to a "fab lab" where cutting-edge technology such as 3-D printing will help birth not just new businesses, but new ideas.
The fab lab and innovation incubator are core features of Georgia Southern University's expansion of its City Campus. This summer, the university, the city of Statesboro, the GSU Research and Service Foundation and the Statesboro Arts Council together applied for a $1 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant for renovations to City Campus and Entrepreneur Zone buildings.
Officials expect an announcement about the grant very soon. They will need other funding sources for the equipment.
Established two-and-half years ago in a city-owned storefront building near City Hall, the campus is home to the College of Business Administration's Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development, or BBRED. A branch of the university's bookstore that at first shared the location has since departed and will soon be replaced by the Small Business Development Center, which is moving over from the Market District as the university consolidates its business and economic development services to the City Campus.
The Center for Entrepreneurial Learning and Leadership will also make the move. Eventually faculty from other GSU arms, such as the College of Engineering and Information Technology, will be seen downtown as the vision becomes a reality.
"This is going to be the hub for business creation and economic development activity not just in Statesboro but regionally as well," said BBRED Director Dr. Dominique Halaby.
The renovation will take in the former Yard & Haus store building next door as the center grows to encompass about 30,000 square feet. Right now, that building is a vacant shell with some new drywall.
But in the current Entrepreneur Zone building, there's a classroom for entrepreneurship courses and continuing education for business people. On a flat-screen television atop a pedestal outside the classroom door, a video about fabrication laboratories, or fab labs, ran endless-loop-style last week. It features Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms, pioneer in the spread of digital fabrication technology from research universities to street-level fabrication, or fab, labs.
"He looked at all the structure that was within MIT, all the resources, the infrastructure that they have, and said why is it only the students at MIT that are able to capitalize, utilize, these structures to create," Halaby said.
Gershenfeld's work to make the concept reproducible on a smaller scale has resulted in fab labs in places as far flung as Rwanda and Norway. The Statesboro facility will be modeled more directly on the fab lab at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Chicago and 19 innovation incubators operated by the University of Central Florida. Georgia Southern personnel have also looked at centers in Wisconsin and North Carolina for ideas.
"We're structuring to be the first part of that network, the first fab lab, in the state of Georgia, right here in this facility" Halaby said. "So we're pretty excited."
Of course, Georgia Tech has digital fabrication equipment available to its students, he concedes. For that matter, so does Georgia Southern, at the main campus.
"This is more than just about our students," Halaby said. "This is about the community within not just Statesboro, Bulloch County, but Southeast Georgia that they can come in with the next crazy idea - for chairs for people whose knees bend in the opposite direction. Well, they'll have a resource and a facility to be able to make that."
The role of the College of Business Administration will then be to vet those ideas, see if there is a market, and guide the first steps toward commercializing them, he said. Faculty and MBA students will work with would-be entrepreneurs on the business aspects of their projects, thus adding the "innovation incubator" aspect to the fab lab.
As for the technology, 3-D printing is the sci-fi become-reality most often associated with fab labs. This digitally controlled process, analogous to laser printing, uses thin layers of material, typically a plastic filament, to build three-dimensional components to specs that can be changed quickly.
While the business college will direct the innovation incubator, GSU's Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Information Technology will manage the lab's technology side. Dr. Mohammad S. Davoud, dean of the college, notes that its students have been using 3-D printing on campus for about 10 years now.
Faculty and grad students, he said, will be ready to assist entrepreneurs in using 3-D printing and other processes to create prototypes of new products when the facility is built and equipped.
"We have offered a helping hand knowing that this is important to the community, and hopefully a few young entrepreneurs will come and have big ideas and we will help them get things off the ground," Davoud said.