An illustration of three students discussing ideas, while one holds a rubix cube. Behind tem are abstract shapes and colors, as well as hands holding a lego and a cell phone. A globe floats in the corner.
An illustration of three students discussing ideas, while one holds a rubix cube. Behind tem are abstract shapes and colors, as well as hands holding a lego and a cell phone. A globe floats in the corner.


So, I’ve got an idea ...

A pilot program is prompting students to develop solutions for challenges in unconventional ways. It’s sharpening their creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship skills.

person might need to ask for directions to reach the fourth floor of Boatwright Library, but when they get there, the elevator doors will open to reveal a cozy space with assorted tables and couches, Post-it notes scattered across the walls, and midafternoon sunlight filtering in through dormer windows.

During the spring semester, this secluded classroom hosted the entrepreneurial endeavors of students in a course called Design Thinking, one module of the three-part Richmond Innovation Fellows program. Here, students develop the tools to address business challenges in unconventional ways, “de-risk” their ideas, and produce compelling solutions that change the status quo.

RIF, currently in its pilot year, is being developed by UR’s Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship initiative, which was created in 2021. (See sidebar.) “[RIF] is for students seeking to flex their creative muscles and test innovative ideas in supportive, real-world settings,” said Somiah Lattimore, CIE’s founding director. This spring, I sat in on a couple of class periods.

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“Have you guys ever heard of the protégé effect?” Geof Hammond, the professor, asks the class while they take their seats on the first day I visit. “It means learning by teaching. Well, you all will be teaching the class next Tuesday.” As students blindly picked cards with the topics they would present, Hammond grounded the class in the design thinking process.

This approach to creating a product starts with opportunity framing: identifying a practical problem, followed by observation and immersion through ethnographic research, and ending with sense-making — distilling the most important information. For now, Hammond has them applying this framework to a specific question: How do we minimize discomfort for freshmen transitioning from high school to college?

The class begins working on assumption testing, or testing ideas’ desirability, feasibility, and viability. Each group eventually stands to share its proposal, along with the assumptions the group members anticipate. “We want to install a hot tub in the Weinstein Center,” one group says, “but this would assume that it is sanitized regularly and that students want to be that close together.”

As a few chuckles sound from around the room, Hammond reminds the class that these assumptions are meant to be tested, and until then, they shouldn’t be shut down. Later, Hammond describes the insights behind assumption testing. “One of the fundamental tenets of design thinking is that it is human-centered,” he says. “What is this person’s life like? Let’s identify their needs, preferences, and the context of their everyday lives.”

“One of the fundamental tenets of design thinking is that it is human-centered.”

After the Innovation Fellows learn creative problem-solving methods in this course, they will have the opportunity to apply the lessons abroad. The second module of the program takes place at the European Innovation Academy in Porto, Portugal. In a three-week session, fellows collaborate with students from around the globe to develop a product and pitch it to a panel of investors.

Ayush Garg, ’26, attended EIA in the summer of 2023. The experience affirmed his passion for entrepreneurship. “With around 500 college kids from all over the world, the place was springing with ideas,” he said. He developed an event safety app as part of a team with four other students. “We came up with the simple idea of a help button,” he said. “It would send your location to the security of the venue, and you could find your friends on it.”

Garg, a computer science major, worked on the tech side, even assuming a co-CEO role. Each team is paired with a professional mentor who is there to provide guidance, not solutions.

“We all got very close quickly,” Garg said. “Going from a small idea to building an entire company around it involves many obstacles and hurdles. They show you the initial four steps you need to take in a journey of a thousand steps.”

When students weren’t working on their product, they explored the city of Porto, going to beaches and meeting other emerging entrepreneurs. Among the students involved in 101 startups that developed from 503 concepts, Dani Valderrama-Avila, ’24, received the Nixon Peabody Patent Innovation Award, and Garg earned a top-10 finalist spot and an Alchemist Accelerator invitation.

Garg took lessons from EIA when he started work on his current project — an AI tool called AnswerThis. Unlike other similar software, AnswerThis’s response to a question includes the references it uses in its reply, an innovation in using AI for academic research.

“More people should be excited about startups,” Garg said. “They are how the world’s problems are being solved. EIA and the Design Thinking course provide you the tools to do it.”

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In the second Design Thinking class session I visit, each student comes to the front of the room to present the topic they randomly selected the week before. The topics are all different methods of prototyping. Valderrama-Avila presents on using Legos to make prototypes, sharing the story of a think tank that created the early stages of an insulin pump using the colorful plastic bricks. She explains that using things that might be lying around quickly turns ideas into tangible, partially developed products.

Then, Garg presents mock advertisements. He demonstrates how to build a spoof ad before even developing a product. Doing so can help validate product desirability, test customer reactions, and even generate a list of potential customers, he tells the class.

Later, he describes how he used this technique in his own project. “When I was building AnswerThis, I used a mock advertisement with a free demo for people who signed up,” he says. “When 200 people joined the waitlist, it gave me the confidence of knowing, ‘OK, this is something people want.’”

Garg knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur from a young age. The Richmond Innovation Fellows program is for students like him and students who have yet to engage in the design process, regardless of whether they pursue majors in the business school or elsewhere on campus. This class and all of the CIE’s programs are open to students from all five schools at the university.

“If we give these students the same tools that designers use,” Hammond says, “and have them start to apply those tools to real-world problems, then they will be better equipped to address them, wherever they go.”


Sophia Demerath, ’26, a rising junior from Minnesota, is a student writer in University Communications. She majors in PPEL — politics, philosophy, economics, and law — and will study abroad in Switzerland during the fall 2024 semester.