CMU center to promote innovative efforts

Tom Benton
Tom Benton
Tim Foster, President, CMU
Tim Foster, President, CMU

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Tom Benton wants students to land good-paying jobs after they graduate from Colorado Mesa University, to be sure. But he has even greater expectations for students with entrepreneurial aspirations.

“We’re going to give them tools to start companies to provide quality jobs. It’s a bit of a grandiose idea, but I think we’ll get there,” said Benton, a retired bank executive  who’s become director of an innovation center under construction on the CMU campus in Grand Junction.

The Maverick Innovation Center is scheduled to open for the fall semester on the first floor of Pinon Hall, providing a place for students to both live and learn while they develop their ideas for new products and services, along with businesses that will sell them. The center is part of a $5 million project to renovate the dormitory.

While not all of the more than 140 students who’ll live in Pinon Hall will necessarily do so to because of the center, Benton expects a good number of them will based on the interest students already have expressed.

The center will come equipped with white boards, common areas and a conference room to create an informal setting that encourages collaboration as well as a place to accommodate presentations, Benton said.

Students also will have access to faculty, entrepreneurs and lenders who can offer information and advice. That group will include Tom Osborn, a researcher with Proctor & Gamble who for more than four decades has been involved in new product development.

Osborn said he expects to work at the Maverick Innovation Center for a week at a time at least three times a semester. He said he views his role there as that of a mentor, sharing his experiences with the innovation process in an industrial setting. He also expects to help students develop new products and services, starting with assessing potential demand and then defining their goals and the steps required to achieve those goals.

CMU President Tim Foster said the idea for an innovation center has “bounced around from a variety of sources” — including faculty and the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction. But a confluence of events created an opportunity to actually open a center, starting with the project to renovate Pinon Hall.

The center will be built in an open space on the first floor of the east wing of a dormitory that will offer a place for students to live, learn and collaborate on various ventures, Foster said.

While Foster said he expects business students to use the center, he also expects engineering students to collaborate on projects. Music and theater students have ideas for inventions and services, too.

While other universities have opened business incubators and accelerators, Foster said the CMU center will be unique  because of the involvement of Benton and Osborn and the backgrounds they offer in financing and business and product development. “These two guys are really going to be the difference makers.”

Benton recently retired as business banking manager for Wells Fargo Bank after working in the financial services industry for 25 years. He currently serves as vice chairman of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

Osborn has a connection to CMU because he attended what was then Mesa College in the 1960s before going on to Colorado State University and Oregon State University.

Benton said he believes the innovation center will help to “jump start” businesses. Students can develop new ventures while they attend CMU. Once they graduate, they’ll be able to take their operations to the next level with additional help from the resources offered by the Business Incubator Center, GJEP and Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Tim Brower, director of the mechanical engineering partnership program between CMU and the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the center will complement the program in offering students more experiences in collaborating on projects. “That’s the way you work in real life.”

Eric Goetz, vice president of operations at the Capco military contractor in Grand Junction, said he’s also excited about the center. “I think it’ll be good for the community. The possibilities are very positive.”