Groundbreaking ideas have been a hallmark of Otterbein University since its founding 169 years ago.

Located in the quaint city of Westerville, north of Columbus, this private liberal arts university is one of the first co-educational colleges in the country and one of the first colleges open to students of color.

Remaining true to its roots, the university earlier this year announced the creation of the STEAM Innovation Center, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

The STEAM (for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Innovation Center is a collaborative effort among the university, the city of Westerville and business partners to develop an ecosystem for startups in a collaborative environment that will create learning and job opportunities for Otterbein’s approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

The center, located in a 61,000-square-foot university building west of Alum Creek, will house startups, business partners, the university’s new systems engineering school, laboratories and classrooms. The first two business partners are Polymer Ohio, a hub for the state’s polymer industry, and Ikove Capital Partners, a venture capital firm.

An economic impact study estimated the direct impact of the project could result in the creation of 200 jobs in five years totaling $16 million in payroll. The state and local tax impact over five years was projected at $3.6 million. 

Kathy Krendl, Otterbein president, says the center will offer internship opportunities for students and a chance to work on product development for the startups in the center.

“They can leave a lab or a class and go directly to work,” she says. “Working with companies, they’ll learn how they operate, what they’re developing and get hands-on experience. It will be great preparation for going into the field. Many of the students will probably be hired by the companies there.”

In addition, she says, “In a lot of big engineering programs students don’t get the opportunity to do these type of hands on engineering projects from the beginning. We’re a small institution, so our classes will be relatively small.”

The idea for the STEAM Innovation Center grew out of local economic development efforts to foster innovative new businesses while Otterbein was developing plans to offer an engineering program, Krendl says.

Through its math and physics programs, Otterbein offered engineering degree completion programs with Case Western Reserve and Washington University in St. Louis.

“We decided to look at building on our strengths in the physics and math programs,” she says. “There are a lot of engineering jobs going wanting in the region and there were calls for better access to engineering programs and more hands-on learning. That’s very much in the wheelhouse of Otterbein.”

The school has a long tradition of creating experiential learning opportunities.

“We’ve always been a college of opportunity with a lot of people who are first generation students or who have need and came here to get part-time jobs,” she says.

“They did things like gardening, and were the original firemen for city of Westerville. The city provided room and board and they could take classes while working as firemen. There’s been this longstanding relationship with the city of Westerville around providing opportunity for students.”