Meeting design challenges in the Centre Region

Galen Bernard
Galen Bernard

Editor’s note: The following is part of the Business Matters special section.

In 1908, Thomas Edison thought he had a great idea. This idea fit with the emphasis on efficiency at the time and would help another business he owned by increasing demand for cement. So he eagerly dreamed, developed and launched the new product: a concrete house that could be built in one pour with a mold.

Have you seen one of those lately?

Design thinking, a problem-solving and innovation process that is standard at Google and Apple but still rare in the Centre Region, addresses whether an idea is feasible, viable and, most importantly, desirable. While the single-pour feasibility of Edison’s concept was exciting, and the modular design made it economically viable, there was one minor issue. Nobody wanted a concrete home.

The entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem has taken off in State College in part through cheering the formation and pursuit ideas. This is a key stage in cultivating a culture which rewards enterprise and innovative work.

Now, our ecosystem has the opportunity to shift some focus from inviting all ideas to increasing the support necessary for quality ideas to take shape and succeed. This shift is underway with the end of quantity-based events like 1,000 Pitches and the increase in venture development resources like Happy Valley LaunchBox.

New Leaf Initiative and our partners saw potential for the design thinking process to improve the quality of innovative ideas and support their success. We brought in Penn State graduate student and design thinking specialist, Jessica Menold, to create the “Idea Gym” in our space.

Six hanging boards with prompts guide innovators through understanding their user, defining key needs, ideating solutions and testing prototypes of their concept. The beauty of the Gym is that the prompts allow someone to run through the design stages any time, while hiring a facilitator such as Jessica can enhance outcomes just like a trainer does for fitness.

We’ve seen the Idea Gym benefit leading companies such as KCF Technologies, student teams developing new software, and important community organizations including the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

New Leaf’s next goal for human-centered design in the area is to engage local and national companies in design challenges that bring together corporate staff, subject experts, students, researchers and facilitators to create new solutions for those companies. University classes already have proven the value of this type of interaction through their idea mining work with corporate partners. The Idea Gym and entire New Leaf space can enable a deeper engagement for all parties, enhancing the relationships and results.

We’re also excited about design challenges because they amplify many of the supports we’ve already seen serve valuable for the innovators at New Leaf.

The interaction with teams from top companies offer students inspiring insights into how these teams collaborate and develop.

The events serve as connectors for emerging talent and established tech companies, leading to more internships and job offers that retain top young professionals in the region.

The emphasis on empathy and feedback encourages equipping oneself with emotional intelligence skills, which research has shown is key for successful leaders and products in IT and across industries.

Our region has seen many new resources for tech and other ventures in recent months — from the Hacky Hour meetup for programmers to the Summer Founders Program for student startups. With this increased potential to launch ventures comes an increased responsibility. We face a question already challenging Silicon Valley: Do our innovations truly solve pressing needs?

As an organization that seeks to inspire, connect and equip innovative people to grow their ideas, New Leaf is excited to continue working with our members and partners to foster ideas that meet the most pressing needs of our community.

Galen Bernard is the executive director of New Leaf Initiative.