Black Fire Innovation, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Caesars Entertainment's innovation hub that focuses on developing the future of hospitality, entertainment and gaming.

Aug 13 2020

Technology Incubators Fuel Startup Success on University Campuses

University-affiliated incubators, accelerators and innovation hubs breathe life into emerging technologies.

Visitors flock to Las Vegas for its glitzy resorts and casinos, stylish restaurants and vibrant entertainment and nightlife scene. In recent years, however, city leaders have recognized the need to expand beyond the appeal of a tourist destination.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Caesars Entertainment aim to do exactly that by launching a new, state-of-the-art innovation hub focused on developing the future of hospitality, entertainment and gaming.

Opened last fall, Black Fire Innovation is a 43,000-square-foot facility that includes two replica hotel rooms, a mock casino floor, an esports arena and a coworking space that will house an incubator for startups. Its goal is to explore emerging technologies, such as robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the Internet of Things, to create new products and services — all while providing an opportunity for students to gain valuable work experience with new technology, doing research for companies or even pursuing their own startups.

“This can be a great resource for the university and the community, not only to support startups and drive innovation, but to attract new companies into the region,” says Zach Miles, the university’s associate vice president for economic development. “Students can apply their academic learning to real-world projects for companies or take their own ideas all the way through the commercialization cycle.”

Black Fire joins a growing number of university-managed or affiliated innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators intended to create spaces for learning and innovating, while also providing startups with the guidance and support they need to build and grow their companies. These programs offer everything from coworking spaces, mentors and educational workshops to networking opportunities with potential investors and partners.

Beyond providing an avenue for students, faculty and startup founders to commercialize their inventions, incubators and accelerators also fuel economic growth and create jobs in their communities, says Sarfraz Mian, professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the State University of New York at Oswego.

These entrepreneurial programs typically provide startups with the IT infrastructure they need, such as Wi-Fi in coworking spaces. Some also provide access to special university facilities or equipment for them to develop their products, Mian says.

A Partnership That Drives Innovation

In Las Vegas, UNLV and Caesars Entertainment partnered to build an innovation hub where students, faculty and companies can develop and test new hospitality, entertainment and gaming concepts.

Caesars aims to create new consumer experiences to diversify the revenue mix in its integrated resorts. It’s a space where the campus community can collaborate with established companies and startups alike.

“It’s a living laboratory to experiment with next-generation experiences,” says Andrew Baca, Caesars’ director of business innovation and technology.

Black Fire Innovation’s top floor features the two hotel rooms along a hallway that flows into the casino floor with a sportsbook, bar, esports arena and virtual reality entertainment lounge. Another floor houses the coworking space, conference rooms and a classroom for hospitality, esports and gaming students from UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.

Using the replicated rooms, researchers can test the use of robots to deliver room service and luggage, Miles says. The rooms also have IoT sensors installed in the bathrooms to detect silent leaks.

Andrew Baca

UNLV and Caesars also plan to build a full-service kitchen where researchers can test artificial intelligence for analyzing customer preferences. The data will be used to design menus and make food recommendations that enhance the customer experience, Baca says.

Technology drives the innovation lab. The first thing Caesars and UNLV designed and built, Baca says, was a data center because it powers everything Black Fire Innovation hopes to accomplish. The data center features hyperconverged infrastructure running on Nutanix software and Lenovo servers and storage hardware. The site also uses HPE Aruba network switches and Wi-Fi access points, he says.

Caesars and UNLV deployed LG displays, ranging from 32 to 136 inches, throughout the space, including the esports arena and sportsbook. They also installed high-powered Alienware Aurora R7 gaming desktops for esports tournaments, Baca says.

Black Fire Innovation is still in its early days, and plans for a startup incubator are in the works. For now, students, faculty, Caesars’ staff and tech companies such as Intel have rented office space and are preparing their research projects.

Besides the International Gaming Institute, other UNLV departments have also expressed interest in using the lab, including programs in hospitality and STEM, along with the schools of business and architecture, Miles says.

“We’ve seen cross-campus interest,” he says. “It’s the early stages, but there is plenty of engagement.”

The Longest Active Technology Incubator in America

Now 31 years old, the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas at Austin is the longest active technology incubator in the country. Having graduated 300 member companies that have contributed more than $3 billion in impact to the central Texas region, it’s also one of the most successful.

Still, ATI’s leadership is constantly fine-tuning the incubator’s strategy. Two years ago, ATI pivoted from traditional enterprise technology startups to “deep technology,” with entrepreneurs focused on global issues, such as agricultural technology, healthcare, transportation, energy and water, says ATI Executive Director Mitch Jacobson.

Four years ago, ATI became a “virtual” incubator after eliminating its coworking space. With 75 coworking spaces in the vicinity, it’s no longer necessary to provide members with office space, although they do designate space for member companies who need it for meetings, he says.

The ATI team meets with startups in its office, but members also communicate via phone, email and videoconferencing. ATI’s employees use the latest cloud-based customer relationship management and communication tools, including Zoom and Skype.

The team also relies on cloud-driven storage and software solutions that allow ATI’s mentors and startup founders to schedule meetings, share documents and communicate.

“Even though we are 31, we are constantly in startup mode,” Jacobson says. “We are constantly looking to improve because the world changes so fast and technology changes so fast.”

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Generating Revenue For University of California, Berkeley

At the University of California, Berkeley, the Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator and incubator program not only nurtures startups by university students, faculty and alumni, but also creates a revenue stream for the university if its startups become successful.

SkyDeck’s primary program is its six-month accelerator, which provides startups with $100,000 in funding, along with an opportunity to learn how to approach building their company. A group of 250 mentors are connected with startups for whom they conduct workshops and provide one-on-one coaching.

SkyDeck invites 20 to 25 startups to join the program each spring and fall. After six months of intense training, the program culminates in a “demo day” during which the startup founders pitch their companies to more than 650 investors, says Caroline Winnett, SkyDeck’s executive director.

SkyDeck provides coworking space and Wi-Fi. It has also partnered with tech companies to provide free or discounted software and services, such as Adobe software and cloud computing resources from Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.

Internally, the SkyDeck team uses cloud-based tools like Google G Suite for office productivity and Zoom for videoconferencing.

Startups that join the accelerator receive their money from the $24 million Berkeley SkyDeck Fund supported by venture capital firms, individuals and corporations. For the investment, the fund receives a 5 percent stake in each company. While UC Berkeley puts no money into the fund, it receives half the fund’s profits.

“We want to invest in companies that solve big challenges in the world,” Winnett says. “And as those companies become successful, we bring in revenue to support education. We are excited about doing both of those things together.”

Eric Jamison/Studio J Inc.