Harriman Hall, retooled for innovation

By GREGORY ZELLER // The startups and products of the future are assembling now in the Stony Brook University business school.

Specifically, they’re coming together in Room 210 of Harriman Hall, a.k.a. the school’s Innovation Lab: 1,200 square feet filled with 3D printers, green screens, video cameras, computers, vinyl cutters, a sewing machine and “more wires than you can imagine,” according to David Ecker, the university’s director of research, technologies and innovation and the lab’s director.

Harriman is home to the business school and the university’s information technology division, among other departments and disciplines, making the hall the ideal place to teach students the basics of innovation.

“We’re trying to create a cross-disciplined facility where ideas generate into prototypes and we spark that entrepreneurial spirit,” Ecker said.

To do it, representatives of the business school, the IT division, SBU’s college of engineering and applied science and the university’s office for integrating research, education and professional development collaborate with students on projects that turn concepts into tangible products.

The Innovation Lab not only gives inventive students a place to flex their creativity but literally teaches them the tools of the trade by hosting a series of workshops instructing the basics of soldering irons, complex software packages and other equipment and programs inventors need to know.

For senior Samiha Shakil, who’s one semester short of a material science and engineering degree, those workshops have been a highlight.

“If you don’t know how to solder, you come in for a half-hour workshop and understand it,” said Shakil, the lab’s student manager. “We have staff members who are very capable teachers. This is a great way to be introduced to new tools and new technologies.

“The university really needed a place like this, someplace where you can have hands-on opportunities,” she added. “We didn’t have a space where I could go off and create if I had an idea based on something I learned in the curriculum.”

The lab opened in February and, in addition to Shakil, has a student staff of about 10. Eight of those staffers are women, Ecker noted – a good sign for a program keenly interested in increasing female interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics opportunities.

“I’ve always been a proponent of women in the STEM fields,” Ecker said. “This brings in women and, through our WISE program, actually brings in younger girls.”

The laboratory hosted a Women in Science and Engineering event this month, teaching visiting 12- and 13-year-old girls the science behind green screens and 3D printing. The Innovation Lab also participated in June’s Long Island Maker Festival, a celebration of invention and innovation held in nearby Port Jefferson.

That sort of community interaction builds interest in and support for the Innovation Lab, Ecker noted, as did a recent field trip to LaunchPad Huntington’s pitch night, where lab representatives performed a reconnaissance mission. The crew – Ecker, Shakil, two lab staffers and Ecker’s wife, with whom he’s launched several startups – didn’t pitch a product, but did mingle with several players in LI’s innovation scene.

“It was basically field research for the Innovation Lab’s own pitch night, which we’d like to do some time,” Shakil noted. “How it was run, what to expect. It turned into a great networking opportunity.”

Including those attending the how-to workshops, the Innovation Lab has so far welcomed about 300 students. Most are interested in seeing those 3D printers in action, Shakil noted, though many have used the lab for its primary purpose: giving their wildest imaginings physical form.

Ecker and Shakil are now planning the fall semester’s workshop schedule and are planning to innovate the lab itself by adding monthly themes: September will be Create Your Own Brand month, October will focus on app development and November will feature a 3D printing competition.

To facilitate that competition and otherwise bolster the hi-tech space’s creative capabilities, Ecker hopes to add some new equipment, including two more 3D printers, a 3D scanner and Leap Motion, a remote controller that gives users advanced ability to manipulate computer functions with simple hand motions.

Perhaps the biggest innovation inside the laboratory, however, will be a special agreement stating that new devices and technologies belong to the students designing them – not to the university. That’s the gist of a “designation” Ecker is “very close to getting through officially” with university administrators.

“We want students to own their own IP,” the director said. “We’re trying to encourage an entrepreneurial nature, so we want to specifically say ‘hey, we’re not trying to take your idea. Just go develop something great.’”

Shakil said the designation, which Ecker described as a departure from regular university policy regarding the use of SBU equipment and space, is a major plus.

“We always get that question: ‘If I come up with an idea and use lab resources to create it, does the university own it?’” she said. “This truly encourages students to innovate inside the lab.”

That student-first approach has made the Innovation Lab “a highlight of my time at Stony Brook,” added Shakil, who used the lab’s resources to collaborate another student on a dress that lights up when the wearer moves.

“The lab really inspires me to try new things,” she said. “This was a great way for me to teach her about electronics and for her to teach me about sewing. We’re learning from each other, something else we want here in the lab.”

That sort of collaboration, Ecker noted, is “vital” to both the students and the innovation economy.

“This is definitely expanding the culture of innovation,” he said. “And that’s something we need to encourage throughout the university.”