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Daniel Goble, assistant professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, leads a team that is developing a mobile system to assess the severity of concussions. Photo: Antonio Zaragoza Daniel Goble, assistant professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, leads a team that is developing a mobile system to assess the severity of concussions. Photo: Antonio Zaragoza

Business Incubator

A second gift to the Zahn Innovation Center will expand its scope and add a social innovation component.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

Updated at 12:12 p.m., Sept. 4, 2013

Entrepreneur Irwin Zahn and the Moxie Foundation have pledged a second large gift to expand SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Center and open its lab to students, faculty, staff and eventually, the San Diego community.

Currently, the center helps 16 student- or faculty-led teams take an idea and move it toward commercialization. Its goal is to cultivate young entrepreneurs while creating jobs and economic stimulus for the San Diego region.

The new gift will expand that focus to include a strong social component, thanks to Zahn and his son, Peter, president of the Moxie Foundation.

“Going forward, we can involve a larger community of students, faculty and staff all across campus in developing ideas that make a social impact, for example, promoting sustainability," said Cathy Pucher, executive director of the Zahn Innovation Center. "Success will be measured by our ability to touch everyone on campus, and ultimately, our San Diego State alumni.”

Mining the campus

Pucher helped create EvoNexus, the business incubator of CommNexus, and a nonprofit trade organization created to stimulate the growth of high technology companies in San Diego.

She has constructed the Zahn Innovation Center to operate like a high-tech design workshop with cutting-edge equipment such as 3-D printers to create early-stage prototypes. The ambiance is casual and collaborative and the open plan space has the feel of a start-up.

Teams are encouraged to leverage the talent and resources that exist on campus. For example, the group led by Daniel Goble, Ph.D., a professor in SDSU's exercise and nutritional sciences department, includes students from engineering, graphic design and business, as well as exercise and nutritional sciences.

Goble's team has developed a portable system to test athletes suspected of suffering concussions. Using a low-cost balance board and custom software, the B-Tracks system objectively measures how much a subject is swaying, which is an indicator of balance.

The B-Tracks system developers are now working with SDSU's rugby team to test the most recent prototype. Their goal is to make the technology available to high schools and universities for significantly less than the cost of an expensive "force plate," the current tool for assessing possible concussion damage.

The power of giving

The Zahn Innovation Center demonstrates the power of giving to create exciting new opportunities for student success at SDSU.

In the last two years, million-dollar gifts from donors have created the Wells Fargo Financial Markets Laboratory and the Glen M. Broom Center for Professional Development in Public Relations. A naming gift from Leonard Lavin for the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center funded a broad expansion of SDSU's entrepreneurship curriculum.

San Diego State has raised nearly $420 million to support students, faculty and programs since The Campaign for SDSU was launched in July 2007.

The Zahn family's new gift will expand the space and scope of the center to involve larger numbers of students and faculty. In the next year, the Zahn Innovation Center will:

  • add an innovation lab with rapid prototype and development equipment
  • enlarge its space and more than double the number of entrepreneur teams
  • establish an advisory board of industry leaders, social innovators and heads of start-ups, including SDSU alumni
  • hire an associate director for social entrepreneurship to join the senior development director already in place. 
Into the market

Teams accepted into the Zahn Innovation Center have about 24 months to get their companies off the ground. There are frequent progress reviews and milestones to achieve as the projects develop.

Experienced entrepreneurs from the San Diego community volunteer their time to mentor and help each team define individual measures of success. Finally, successful teams are introduced to later-stage incubators that can help support their companies during the next phase of development.

Throughout the process, Zahn Innovation Center staff work with the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and its director, Alex DeNoble, to introduce student teams to SDSU professors who consult on business strategy and accounting practices for startups.

“The Zahn’s generosity and entrepreneurial spirit is creating a hub where impactful research and development can take place on this campus,” said Stephen Welter, dean of Graduate and Research Affairs. “We anticipate a heightened synergy between SDSU and the San Diego community.”