By Caroline Odom, University of Georgia

When Meriah Grove was a freshman at the University of Georgia in 2016, she walked into the office of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program and asked how she could get involved.

“My passion and my life is creating something out of nothing,” said Grove, a senior advertising major from Roswell, Georgia.

Grove has watched the program, an entity of the Terry College of Business, grow since then. The program moved in March 2019 from a space within the Terry College into its own facility, Studio 225 in downtown Athens.

The opening of Studio 225 — named for its address at 225 W. Broad St., the main road separating campus and downtown Athens, Georgia — represented the first step towards the launch of the Innovation District, a project connecting entrepreneurship organizations at UGA and in Athens to encourage collaboration.

“The bigger reach we have, the better I think the program will be,” Grove said.

Grove’s experience with startups began in high school when she and her best friend started a nonprofit called Pair2Share to make dance more accessible to low income students through donated shoes, scholarships and classes. She works in the entrepreneurship program office and has participated in the entrepreneurship program’s UGA Idea Accelerator and UGA’s Innovation Corps, an accelerator sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The entrepreneurship program offers an entrepreneurship certificate that is open to all majors.

When the certificate was first offered in 2016, 33 students participated. Now, approximately 580 students are in the program, according to Bob Pinckney, director of the entrepreneurship program.

“Seeing this program grow as much as I have in the past four years has been absolutely awesome,” Grove said.

The expansion of the entrepreneurship program reflects a greater trend at UGA and in Athens.

Between 2013 and 2017, UGA’s total research and development expenditures increased by 41%, and more than 675 products and 160 companies based on UGA research have reached the marketplace, according to a task force appointed by UGA President Jere Morehead.

After 12 meetings throughout 2017 and 2018, the 15-member committee developed a plan for the Innovation District. The goal of the district is to create a “stronger innovation culture across campus,” according to a July 2018 report by the task force.

“It’s a movement and a vision,” said Kyle Tschepikow, special assistant to Morehead and member of the task force.

The Innovation District plan includes new facilities, speaker and educational programs and partnerships within the university and local businesses and institutions, said Tschepikow.

The Innovation District is “what most universities can’t actually enact on,” said Ian Biggs, programming director of startups at Innovation Gateway, a UGA organization that develops UGA research into industry-ready products, during the program. The breadth of research at UGA, the university’s “creative sections” and the business element brought by Terry College strengthens UGA’s position, said Biggs.

“You need to have a hipster, you need to have a hacker, and you need to have a hustler,” said Biggs, who has been with Innovation Gateway since 2015.

The innovation movement at UGA began five years ago when UGA noticed the gap between what research universities produce and what corporations want. Corporations no longer want to do the product development or research, but want to buy a completed product, said Biggs.

Goals of the Innovation District include increasing the visibility of UGA research and innovation activities, increasing interactions with industry professionals, boosting entrepreneurial success involving UGA personnel and creating a “startup buzz” around Athens and UGA, according to the report.

The Innovation District is supported by partnerships at UGA and in Athens, including the New Media Institute in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the FABricate entrepreneurial initiative in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, local entrepreneurship nonprofit ATHENSmade and the student-run Society of Entrepreneurs, of which Grove is a board adviser.

Grove said she hopes the Innovation District will increase the entrepreneurship program’s ability to recruit students from across campus instead of being “siloed with Terry students.” The program needs students who can make financial sheets, engineer computer programs and develop an advertising campaign.

“We are stronger with the sum of our parts than by our individual people,” Grove said.

At its maturity, the task force hopes that the district will include facilities across the northeast corridor of campus and cross into downtown Athens, but the next new facility to join Studio 225 will be a building called Innovate. Planning for Innovate will begin as soon as financing is secured, according to the task force report.

When its doors open, they will welcome all hipsters, hackers and hustlers at UGA and in Athens.

Caroline Odom is journalism major in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.