The new Lobo Rainforest building marks the first phase of construction of the Innovate ABQ research and development site Downtown. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)
University of New Mexico junior Kyle Guin is immersed from head to toe in the new Innovate ABQ high-tech research and development hub taking shape in the heart of Albuquerque.
Guin, 21, just launched his first commercial app through the Apple App Store, allowing users to instantaneously turn photos of things like course schedules, events or business cards into immediately accessible files logged into note, calendar or contact programs on mobile devices. He built the app through his new startup, Pencil-In, which is now housed at Innovate ABQ’s new Lobo Rainforest building, a six-story facility that opened in August at the old seven-acre First Baptist Church property at Broadway and Central Downtown.
Guin is enrolled in UNM Innovation Academy courses at the Rainforest building and lives in one of the 155 student apartments on the upper floors. And he was just appointed as a new “Lobo Rainforest Ambassador” to educate more UNM students about Innovate ABQ, get them involved and help brand the Downtown site as Albuquerque’s go-to place for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“This is now definitely the best business working space in Albuquerque,” Guin said. “It offers so many opportunities to tap into resources and surround yourself with people who have done amazing things. It’s unreal.”
With the opening of the Rainforest Building, plus last week’s inauguration of Central New Mexico Community College’s Fuse Makerspace next door, the Innovate ABQ site has finally made the transition from a big idea into a real-life center of activity.
UNM, the city and other public and private partners have been working for four years to build Innovate ABQ as ground zero for a new innovation corridor in central Albuquerque where the state’s research labs and universities can work directly with entrepreneurs, investors and marketing professionals to collaborate on commercializing new technologies, building startup companies and encouraging entrepreneurship as an engine for economic growth.
At the heart of it are students like Guin, who Innovate ABQ enthusiasts see as the linchpin for building a flourishing high-tech economy.
“It’s not just a plan on a piece of paper anymore,” said Innovation Academy Executive Director Rob DelCampo. “The reality is unfolding before our eyes.”
The entire 30,000-square-foot ground floor of the Rainforest building is now filled with tenants, including UNM’s Science and Technology Corp., Sandia National Laboratories, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Innovation Academy and about half a dozen startup companies.
The building’s newest tenant, global engineering defense contractor General Atomics, is moving into the facility’s one-remaining office space this month.
“General Atomics fills everything up on the first floor,” said Lisa Kuuttila, UNM’s chief economic development officer and STC president and CEO. “About 100 students are also now living in the upstairs apartments.”
The co-location of all those programs in one place already is generating interaction and collaboration, Kuuttila said. And that, in turn, is leading to “collisions” among people that can spur new, innovative ideas and projects.
“What we hoped for is starting to happen, with random collisions among people as they run into each other in the hallways and open workspaces,” Kuuttila said.
One such collision occurred in late August, when participants in a New Mexico Biotechnology Association meeting happened upon an Innovation Academy event being held to introduce visiting entrepreneurs to students seeking internships. Some of the biotech executives ended up hiring students, Kuuttila said.
The labs and UNM are now working together on technology transfer and entrepreneurial programs. STC is providing direct training in technology commercialization strategies for staff at AFRL, which occupies a 1,700-square-foot space next to the STC’s suite of offices. It’s also introducing AFRL to investors and entrepreneurs.
It’s the first time that AFRL has joined a community-based, multi-tenant facility, said Matthew Fetrow, director of AFRL’s technology engagement office.
“The synergy is fantastic,” Fetrow said. “It’s unique for us to be imbedded together with other agencies directly in the city’s economic hub.”
For both AFRL and Sandia, the Rainforest allows lab personnel to step out from behind the fence to interact with the community. That’s important for investors and entrepreneurs to gain more access to lab technologies, and for Sandia and AFRL scientists and engineers to get directly involved in marketing government innovation.
“In November, we’ll start office hours for Sandia groups to schedule time here with people in the community,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, Sandia manager for technology and economic development. “This brings us out from behind the fence and into a place where people can just walk in without a badge.”
Sandia is establishing collaborative relationships with organizations in and around the Innovate ABQ site, including the ABQid business accelerator, now housed at CNM’s FUSE Makerspace at the old Noon Day Ministries building next to the Rainforest facility.
Access to the makerspace, meanwhile, is enticing lab scientists and engineers to try product prototyping at Innovate ABQ, Fetrow said.
A planned renovation of the existing First Baptist Church sanctuary on the southeast corner of the Innovate ABQ site could generate more entrepreneurial activity. Goodman Realty will begin design work this fall and launch the first phase of reconstruction in early 2018 to turn that building into a high-tech, multi-use facility for startups and entrepreneurial programs.
At the center of everything are students.
Last week, STC and the Academy launched its first 10-week cohort of student innovators that they selected to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program. The NSF awarded a $444,000 grant in August to UNM to turn the Rainforest building into an iCorp’s site. That allows the university to award $3,400 grants to 20 different student teams this semester and next to bring new lab and university technologies to market.
And in January, the Academy will launch a new, eight-week Tech Navigator Challenge in which student teams will design business plans to commercialize university and lab technologies, culminating in a pitch competition for $25,000.
Academy students say the programs, facilities and resources are motivating them into action through hands-on, real-life instruction that makes entrepreneurship a critical part of their careers.
“I don’t want to just code the rest of my life. I want to make products to market and sell,” said computer science senior Nathan Banks. “For everyone here, this is not just about hitting the books, getting your degree and getting out. It’s about innovation and new ideas.”
Rainforest ambassador Guin said Innovate ABQ has opened a new outlook on life.
“I believe all education should shift this way,” Guin said. “Everything here is so connected to what I want to do in real life. It’s helping kids develop a whole new mind-set.”