PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University, which launched in 2016 with a mission to make entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown experience, will soon have a dedicated new home at 249 Thayer St. in Providence.
The University will lease space for the center in a built-from-scratch, 10,000-square-foot building just steps from the heart of Brown’s College Hill campus. It will serve as a nexus for entrepreneurial activity at Brown, providing a dedicated space for everything from courses and events to new ventures, entrepreneurs-in-residence, visiting faculty and student organizations.
“This is an ideal location for the Nelson Center,” said Danny Warshay, the center’s executive director. “It’s centrally located on College Hill, yet it’s also immersed in a commercial district where there is a great deal of exposure to ideas beyond the classroom. This will encourage the kind of accidental collisions between experts and disciplines that are central to entrepreneurship and to the missions of both the center and Brown.”
Currently home to a small, one-story retail building set for demolition, 249 Thayer St. will become the site of a newly constructed, four-story, mixed-use building. Brown will lease space from Capstone Properties and the Discovery Group, which co-own and are developing the building, and expects to take occupancy of the building’s top three floors in spring 2019. The building is directly across the street from the Brown University Bookstore.
Since its launch last year — supported by a $25 million gift from Jonathan M. Nelson, a 1977 Brown alumnus and founder and CEO of Providence Equity Partners — the Nelson Center has operated temporarily from a third-floor suite in Brown-RISD Hillel. Students, faculty, alumni and staff engaged in planning for the new location say a dedicated space in which Brown community members can interact around entrepreneurial pursuits will prove transformative in creating new collaborations, sparking new ventures and supporting more initiatives.
For example, the new building will provide space for teams working on new ventures to collaborate, as well as opportunities for groups developing completely unrelated projects to support and inform one another’s work, Warshay said.
“You might have one team launching a music-related startup working immediately next to another group developing a new biomedical technology,” he said. “This kind of cross-pollination of ideas and approaches that happens when different startup groups are in the same space is essential to successful entrepreneurship. Physically centralizing the work of the center — and designing it to encourage these interactions — will inevitably lead to more and richer innovation in the work that we do.”
The new space will serve as a physical hub for Brown’s diverse entrepreneurial community, said Sophie Starck, incoming president of the student-run Brown Entrepreneurship Program.
“This building is going to bring our community together and open a lot of doors for students,” Starck said. “The most magical moments in entrepreneurship happen when you are talking about ideas and innovation with smart, fascinating people you normally wouldn’t meet. This larger, permanent space will enable those moments to happen.”
A devoted space on College Hill
To create an interior to serve the distinctive needs the Nelson Center, architects from Providence-based 3SIXØ worked with a diverse array of Brown stakeholders engaged in entrepreneurship on campus in a design process that mirrored the very entrepreneurial method espoused by the center, Warshay said.
“In entrepreneurship, we always start by determining the unmet need,” he said. “We tried to walk our talk to ensure that we understood the unmet needs of the variety of community members — students, faculty, staff, alumni and others — who will ultimately use this space. The architects were excellent at translating insights into conceptual designs and then into architectural elements.”
The end result is a modular interior design consisting of moveable panels that can be arranged into a variety of different spaces — from offices and small huddle rooms to spacious rooms for events or collaborations — as needs demand. Two of the three floors will have the same panel configuration; the third floor will incorporate the modular system, but with a different configuration to enable space for larger gatherings.
Chris Bardt, principal architect at 3SIXØ, said the adaptable spaces will not only accommodate the uses that the Nelson Center’s programs and initiatives require, but reflect the spirit of entrepreneurship itself.
“Entrepreneurship is not about permanence,” Bardt said. “It’s about growth, opportunity, identifying things that are over the horizon before they actually manifest themselves in ways that are recognizable. The building’s interior design reflects this.”
Warshay explained that the design of the space will allow the center to continuously adapt to the needs of the various student ventures that will occupy it for short-term periods.
“Different types of ventures will need different types of spaces,” he said. “Sometimes spaces will be open to the rest of the floor; sometimes they will be smaller and closed off. With so much potential for new ventures and future Nelson Center programs, we don’t even know yet all of the many ways in which students and faculty will use this building — so we wanted it to remain as flexible as possible.”
New support for new ventures
In the short time since its launch, the Nelson Center has quickly become a focal point for entrepreneurship at Brown, Warshay said.
Over the last year, the center has hired new faculty and launched new courses on entrepreneurship; held an academic conference on entrepreneurship at the intersection of diversity and inequality; piloted a Peer Entrepreneurs-In-Residence program; facilitated Breakthrough Lab, Brown’s summer student venture program; and hosted a diverse range of entrepreneurs and innovators as speakers, including Brown graduates Neil Parikh and Luke Sherwin, co-founders of Casper, an online start-up mattress maker, and Brown graduate Steph Korey, co-founder of Away, a high-end, direct-to-consumer luggage company.
While much of the funding to support the center continues to emanate from Jonathan M. Nelson’s establishing gift, the increased energy around entrepreneurship as a result of the launch is inspiring other donors as well.
Support from Chuck and Jan Davis, for example — who graduated from Brown in 1982 and 1983, respectively, and are the parents of two Brown graduates — will create a space in the new building where student teams can collaborate as they develop and launch new ventures.
“The new Nelson Center building offers a unique opportunity for Brown students, faculty and experts to establish the kind of entrepreneurial synergy needed for the creation of innovative, solution-oriented and — ultimately — successful ventures,” said Chuck Davis, chairman and CEO of the internet and media company Prodege, parent company of rewards site Swagbucks. “This collaborative approach to entrepreneurship is distinctively Brown and one that my family is excited to support.”
The move into a long-term yet adaptable home will allow the Nelson Center to continue to grow in a way that mirrors its — and the University’s — approach to entrepreneurship, Warshay said.
“The Nelson Center supports a collaborative, adaptive, cross-disciplinary vision for entrepreneurship at Brown,” he said. “A physical space that reflects that vision is a critical complement to our robust programming and an essential resource that will empower students to develop new ventures of all kinds. We are excited to move into this next phase of our own entrepreneurial journey at Brown.”