STEAM Factory, a unique OSU program, embraces startup thinking.
STEAM Factory, is a promising notch in Ohio State's belt, a prime example of its young faculty creating something new and exciting and earning administrators' buy-in. And a spinoff presents an opportunity to monetize some of its ideas. But in 2012, the program was as close to bootstrapping as academia gets. “We had nothing,” says co-founder Roman Holowinsky, an associate professor of math.
STEAM—an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math—is a grassroots, multidisciplinary Ohio State research group. Its members, whose expertise spans the university, conduct interdisciplinary seminars, workshops and research, introducing their work to hundreds of people who don't normally encounter academic rigor. The group also awards small seed funding for projects.
Its members do all this and more on their own time. Professors like Holowinsky and Sathya Gopalakrishnan, an associate professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics, attend to their regular teaching and research roles at the university and squeeze in time whenever possible to do their STEAM role.
The group is at home in its Franklinton digs at the 400 W. Rich St. artistic haven. Initially chosen for its affordable rent, the former warehouse turned out to be a perfect match, with artists, consultants and other entrepreneurs gathered under one roof.
STEAM started as an informal meetup group of young faculty who knew little of their new city. Many were like Holowinsky who moved to Columbus from across the country and yearned for a social connection with like-minded peers.
Happy hours and hangout sessions led to talk about research. The gatherings provided a way for upstart professors to discuss what they do in a low-pressure setting. Membership quickly grew, and different events took root. What started as grassroots soon gathered support from different areas of the university.
To Gopalakrishnan, who succeeded Holowinsky as STEAM's chair in June, the most vivid example of the organization's impact is its open houses during Franklinton Fridays, a monthly get-to-know-the-neighborhood celebration. There, the STEAM Factory hosts faculty and post-doc experts presenting unique research, taking advantage of the increased foot traffic. Between 200 and 600 people typically come through STEAM's space.
Someone from the Museum of Biological Diversity might talk about rare insects, or a mechanical engineer may share and demonstrate his knowledge of robots. “We're not really telling people, ‘Listen to us because we're academics.' They're coming here to see what's happening around town, and we just happen to be here,” Gopalakrishnan says.
Positive attention followed. Holowinsky stepped away from his leadership role last year to run a STEAM spinoff, called the Erdos Institute, that's situated in Franklinton neighbor the Idea Foundry. Named after famed mathematical collaborator Paul Erdos, the new organization aims to build on STEAM Factory's momentum. Part of this includes commercializing some of the research and technology that originates there by linking entrepreneurial professors with outside industry.
That means connecting doctoral students in theoretical sciences like astronomy, physics and math to corporate careers. There are far too few jobs in academia for the number of graduates, even in the ballyhooed math and science fields, but corporations are increasingly eyeing those with this specialized background.
Matt Scantland, CEO of CoverMyMeds, has enjoyed a relationship with Holowinsky since early in STEAM's existence. His company hired two data science interns through the group and sees more opportunity to tap into its PhD pipeline. “It's a strong collaboration that lots of things might grow out of,” says Rob Littleton, data science manager at CoverMyMeds.
What's more, the concept is spreading to another university. Through Erdos, Ohio State and Vanderbilt University are running a pilot program called Invitations to Industry, which links companies like Google and Bank of America to graduate degree-earners looking at specific industry career opportunities. “We have PhDs that need jobs, and we have companies that need to hire PhDs,” Holowinsky says.
Tom Knox is a freelance writer.