Student entrepreneurs will soon have a place to showcase their talents and utilize resources on a larger scale: The Atherton YMCA building across the street from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa will be transformed into an innovation and entrepreneurship center within the next few years.
“It’s important for students to have resources like the Atherton because it surrounds people with like-minded individuals,” Austin Yoshino, a senior mechanical engineering major, said. “Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because they think differently, and it’s important for them to surround themselves with people who also think differently.”
The current Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship space already serves as a coworking and study space for students, but UH Ventures Director Susan Yamada, who is the lead on the Atherton project, said that she wants students to have a larger area.
“We want classrooms where we can teach entrepreneurship classes, as well as offices or incubation spaces where startup companies can kind of actually work,” she said.
According to Yamada, some of the inspiration for the project came from the Lassonde Studios, a five-story home for student entrepreneurs, innovators and creators at the University of Utah.
The UH Foundation bought the Atherton YMCA in 2016, with plans of using it for student housing. In 2017, UH Mānoa and the UH Foundation started “Project 1.0” for the student housing plans, but it was suspended in early 2018 due to financial constraints.
April 2018 was when “Project 2.0,” the current proposal for the center, started.
The cost for the project is still in flux because they have not finalized the actual drawings of the project with its developer, according to Yamada.
The plan is to create around 300 dormitory beds, coworking spaces, prototype labs and rentable office spaces for UH startups in the Atherton YMCA. The Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship plans to run the programs that will be there as well.
She hopes that students will take more ownership and use the center once it is built since it will be on “neutral ground.”
“I have discovered that many students and professors are not even aware that it (PACE) exists on campus,” Savannah Adler, a senior fashion design and merchandising major, said. “I believe that the Atherton project will ensure a more encompassing reach to both our university and community.”
Yamada said that one of PACE’s hardest jobs is identifying students on campus who are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. She says when students find out about the opportunities with PACE, they are already juniors or seniors. With the living component of the Atherton YMCA project, Yamada hopes that they will get a “nice cross-section of majors” from freshmen to seniors.
“If we can create this, and if I can touch as many UH students prior to graduation with at least one program or class to teach them the 21st century workforce skills, that would be my dream at the end of the day,” Yamada said.
Any UH Mānoa student can apply to live at the center once it is built, but will have to meet certain criteria that will be set by PACE. For example, a student will have to indicate how they will best contribute to the working environment, and if they have experience starting a company, brand, business or entrepreneurship skills. PACE will then pick students who they think fit the community.
For Yoshino, he credits PACE for for his company’s success.
“Through their competitions we won funding to help jump-start our business,” Yoshino said. “They provide us with programs to educate us, and they connect us to well respected individuals in the community.”
Yoshino founded Manaola Innovations, Inc., which was inspired by his younger brother Brandt, who has cerebral palsy. The company is developing medical products such as an assisted walking device, or a “G-Trainer,” as Yoshino calls it.
Although students like Yoshino will have graduated by the time the center opens, he says that he is “excited knowing that there is going to be a dedicated center for entrepreneurs to work together and facilitate world-changing ideas.”
“I think this energy of what we create with homegrown talent, from people around the world, all these different majors, I mean, that is a soup that I wanted to cook for a really long time,” Yamada said. “In this center, we’re kind of enabling it to happen.”
The plan is to have the center open by August 2022.