Eureka! The Baker Institute

Eureka! The Baker Institute

An old adage maintains that “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” That may be true, but the path to innovation can be daunting. Fortunately, the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation at Lehigh University provides students with many ways to encourage forward-thinking and problem solving.

The center was endowed in 2010 by the late Dexter Baker, who had a 40-year career at Air Products and Chemicals. Baker wanted every student to experience themselves as creative innovators, then use that creativity to challenge the status quo–essentially to think outside the box, advice Baker had been given by a professor during his MBA studies.

“It’s really a university-wide organization that helps students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Lisa Getzler, executive director of the institute. Its resources include mentoring, idea-stage funding, various spaces for working, meeting, and making; skill-building programs and much more.

Nurturing creativity and innovation via the Institute can be like learning a sport, Getzler explained. Some participants are naturally gifted, while others may have had no prior experience at all. “But as you learn the game and its rules and practice, you get better at it. And you can gain lessons from losing that you’d never learn if you won all the time,” she said.

Much more than starting a business
And while we typically associate entrepreneurship with starting a business, Getzler said there’s more to it than that. “The definition of ‘entrepreneur’ has expanded over the last 20 years,” Getzler said. “Entrepreneurial thinkers see opportunities to solve problems and create value; they understand other people’s needs and work to develop solutions.”

In other words, they find ways to make things work better–and that skill applies to virtually any setting. For example, within the University, the Institute has presented workshops for library technology services and other internal organizations and student groups to encourage more innovative operations. And students in the Baker Institute worked with the city of Bethlehem to develop innovative ideas for the Mayor’s Challenge, a national initiative to find permanent housing for homeless veterans.

Five key programs
“Design thinking” takes a human-centered approach to problem solving. It focuses on empathy (understanding the problems people face); define (reframing those insights as “how might we” questions); ideate (brainstorming for possible solutions); prototype (building out an idea); test (implementing a possible solution to see if it works).

The Hatchery offers an immersive summertime learning experience in which students learn and practice the basic skills of entrepreneurship, regardless of where they are on their entrepreneurial journey.

During EUREKA! Pitch Nights, student-anchored (faculty and staff may participate, too) teams present detailed pitches of their ideas—from simple sketches to actual prototypes–to a panel of expert judges. Winning teams are awarded funding, mentoring, or both. And unlike most competitions, it’s possible that every pitching team may earn some level of support.

LehighSiliconValley is a 3-credit course in the San Francisco Bay area. Lehigh undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni immerse themselves in a week-long focus on actual new-venture creation.

The Baker Institute even has international reach through its Global Entrepreneurial Fellowships, in partnership with the Nasdaq Center. It’s roughly similar to LSV, but places students in early- to mid-range startups in various economic centers around the world.

Innovating in the time of Covid-19
And while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has upended practically every aspect of life, the Institute saw the restrictions as an opportunity to put its concepts into practice.

Take the Hatchery program. “We decided in March to convert the program to a 100%-remote operation. We learned how to make an inviting and exciting remote interaction platform, and then followed up by sending each participant a ‘box of awesome’– everything needed to build prototypes.”

Getzler also relied on MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. It provides an interactive virtual whiteboard, enabling remote students to interact and contribute in real time. “It’s been incredibly useful,” she added, “and the students have responded well to it.”

Getzler added that the Global Entrepreneurial Fellowship–originally intended to send students to London, Dortmund, and New Delhi–would follow a similar path. “We couldn’t just put students on a plane and drop them in Germany, India, and England,” Getzler said. “So we have arranged for them to engage in their global internships right from their living rooms.”

Academic cooperation
Lehigh’s college of business offers a minor in entrepreneurship directed by Prof. Andreea Kiss. “It’s one of the most successful programs at Lehigh,” Kiss said. “Each year, 40 to 50 students declare it as their minor.” She added that it’s open to students in all majors who want to bring change to new fronts and to established ventures.

They draw on their diverse backgrounds as they work together, through hands-on courses, on a single idea. “We might have a representative of an actual enterprise that has a problem introduce the situation to the class at the beginning of the semester, and then work with them to develop an innovative solution. The students love it, because they gain the advantage of the real-world experience,” rather than performing textbook exercises. “We frequently leverage the Baker Institute’s resources,” Kiss added, “to complement and extend what we offer in class.”

More to come
True to its mission, the Baker Institute is not static; next year’s plans include a partnership with the college of business to launch a new-business incubator. “We’ll have certain criteria for using the incubator–like Ben Franklin Tech Ventures has, but unlike BFTV—we intend to identify startup companies founded by Lehigh alumni that could benefit from our real and/or virtual resources to grow faster and scale up sooner,” Getzler said.

Dexter Baker

The late Dexter F. Baker is perhaps best known as the former chairman of the board and president of Air Products and Chemicals, where he worked from 1952 until his retirement in 1992.

The impetus for founding the Baker Institute was straightforward: “Asa Packer [Lehigh’s founder] was an entrepreneur who conceived a new transportation service and moved products from the Lehigh Valley all over the world,” Baker once said. “I want Lehigh graduates to be vaccinated with the spirit of Asa Packer and chart their own course so they don’t have to doggedly follow in the footsteps of others, but can be the lead dog themselves. I believe in it. I am a product of it.”

Baker, with his wife Dorothy (“Dottie”), was also a significant community benefactor; the couple co-chaired a major capital campaign for the Zoellner Arts Center and secured naming rights to Baker Hall and provided funding for the Dorothy and Dexter Baker Center for the Arts at Muhlenberg College. The Baker Foundation supports merit scholarships in the arts at Lehigh University; several other area schools and colleges; and numerous Lehigh Valley and national nonprofits in the arts, youth, social service initiatives and entrepreneurship.

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