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Virginia Commonwealth University will soon hold a grand opening of the Shift Retail Lab, a multifunctional retail space where past and present VCU students can showcase their work to gain insights and test their products, services and ideas with real-world customers.

The 2,700-square-foot lab, located at 1235 W. Broad St., across the street from VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center, will support VCU student innovators and entrepreneurs with retail and office space, and will serve as a front door to Richmond’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. It will open during VCU Homecoming Week with a series of events, including a public open house and reception on Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.

The lab will be operated by the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation, which advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration, and offers programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as training in design thinking to all VCU students. It is a collaboration of VCU’s School of ArtsSchool of BusinessCollege of EngineeringCollege of Humanities and Sciences and VCU Health.

“While student founders will be able to sell their products in the Shift Retail Lab, the main goal is to provide them with a space to test and experiment,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center. “The Retail Lab is a space where founders can engage in iterative design and test key assumptions around pricing, branding and packaging. Customers of Shift will have the option to purchase available products as well as be encouraged to provide feedback on early stage ideas to help founders turn their ideas into action.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., first announced the concept of the lab in his State of the University Address in January 2020, saying it would be a “first-of-its-kind place where entrepreneurial students can join in creating innovations that accelerate their student experience and advance the human experience.”

Ahead of the opening, Rao said the lab would help accelerate the growing culture of student entrepreneurship at VCU.

“Current and former students will be part of an urban learning laboratory that will prepare them for real-world opportunities,” he said.

At a recent preview event, VCU students, including Aliyah Desautels, a senior interdisciplinary studies major who is also pursuing an Undergraduate Certificate in Product Innovation from the da Vinci Center, checked out the lab.

“I think it’s really cool that VCU is able to spearhead this kind of student showcase space. Things like this in the innovation space are honestly one of the reasons why I came to VCU,” she said. “I’ve always known that I wanted to do something in the entrepreneurship space, but I never really thought that as an undergrad I would have access to a space in a really popping city where you can showcase the work that you’re doing as a startup. Whether that’s selling things or getting user feedback, that’s not really an opportunity you can get elsewhere.”

Construction of the lab was made possible through contributions from Mark Hourigan and Hourigan Construction.

“Hourigan has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with VCU, and we are especially proud to be in partnership on the Shift Retail Lab,” Hourigan said. “Building out the space was certainly an important first step, and we are particularly excited for what’s next. Going forward, the Hourigan team will work in collaboration with students and entrepreneurs as we focus on real-world building solutions that will ultimately enhance communities and advance our world.”

Shift Retail Lab will be open to the public, and will be available to all VCU students. The da Vinci Center will provide entrepreneurial training to any student interested in the space through its VCU Entrepreneurship Academy micro-credential program.

“The da Vinci Center is committed to hands-on and applied teaching and learning,” Westlake said. “This physical space is a true laboratory for teaching innovation and entrepreneurship in the real world as well as connecting students to the local community. This new space will also remove barriers to entry for traditionally underrepresented student entrepreneurs by requiring aspiring founders to have less startup capital to launch an idea.”

Visitors to the lab can expect to find students’ early stage ideas and prototypes looking for public feedback, as well as established student and alumni ventures selling products and services. Additionally, community-based entrepreneurs will be in residence throughout the year, with initial residencies by businesses in the Jackson Ward Collective, which connects and supports Black-owned businesses in Richmond. Corporate and community partners of the da Vinci Center, including Activation Capital, CarMax, Capital One and McKesson, also will hold joint events at the lab to explore new products.

“The launch of Shift represents the da Vinci Center’s commitment to innovative academic and experiential learning in collaboration with our community,” Westlake said. “Mark Hourigan and his team have delivered a world-class facility, the first of its kind in the country, and consistent with our commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration, Shift will be available to all VCU students. Access to innovative facilities like Shift provides students with unique learning opportunities and allow greater participation and partnership with the local community.”

VCU student founders interested in having their work displayed at the grand opening may apply by Oct. 15.

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