Man on fire: Xavier innovation center head taps into region's creative mindset

Xavier University was built upon the principles of Ignatius Loyola, the founding father of the Jesuit order known for telling others to "Go forth and set the world on fire."

Five-hundred years after his death, Ignatius's words have become the spark for Xavier's Center for Innovation, an on-campus idea incubator ready to ignite imaginations throughout the region.

CFI's unofficial fire starter is executive director Shawn Nason, who came to Xavier two months ago following a 20-year career of tapping into creative minds with various organizations and corporations. Nason, 41, may be new to academia, but he's finding his motto of "Innovation isn't work, it's a lifestyle" seamlessly carrying over into the hallowed halls of university life.

Tapping into an innovative mindset

Though the center is still in its infancy, its mission is clear, Nason notes. CFI, mindchild of Xavier provost Dr. Scott Chadwick, will offer clients a suite of services including design programs, innovation consulting, mentoring, and innovation degree programs. All programs, workshops and sessions are customizable and can be brought to participating organizations, he notes.

"We want to help shift people into an innovative mindset," says Nason, an Anderson Township resident.

Since arriving in August, the innovation center director has worked fast to connect the embryonic enterprise with future clientele. CFI is currently working with four local startups including Batterii, a consumer research-based software platform. The company's wares are finding use in undergraduate classrooms at Xavier as a tool for projects and student-led innovation sessions.

CFI is also partnered with entrepreneurial outfits specializing in identity protection, email communication and wearable technology, and officials expect to welcome aboard their first corporate client before the end of the year. Every encounter CFI has with clients, called "guests" in organizational parlance, will leverage the school's collective expertise in both the global marketplace and higher education, Nason says.

"We're bringing an entire tool belt of training into this," he says. "We know how to tap into our communities’ minds and catalyze them to achieve great things."

Homegrown creativity

Next spring, CFI will move into its new home, a former auto parts warehouse on the Xavier campus. Innovation training and development will be available to individuals and companies, from educators to "lifestyle businesses" offering pet clothing and casual collegiate wear. The center is also in the tentative stages of planning a "healthcare hackathon" where industry leaders would explore various ideation methodologies.

CFI's creation aligns with Xavier's growing innovation culture, Nason says. In fall 2015, Xavier will launch its College of Arts and Innovation, a school that will include departments of art, digital film and music. It will also house an innovation engineering minor already on offer. Meanwhile, center leaders are preparing an etching and prototyping program around the "maker lab" concept, a learning environment and process incubator that promotes smarter, more collaborative production.

"Innovation doesn't have to be this huge, transformative thing," Nason says. "You can take a process and renovate it, and that can be as innovative as anything else."

Cintrifuse, a business-led organization supporting high-potential startups and entrepreneurs, played a role in linking CFI with its four initial partners. Jordan Vogel, Cintrifuse’s director of entrepreneurial ecosystems, expects that collaboration to continue through raising awareness of DIY business activity.

"We can connect people to Xavier, and they would do the same thing for us," Vogel says. "It's about cross-pollination and evangelizing (for the center) through social media, events and sponsorships."

On the micro level, the organization official is helping CFI form its programming and curriculum. Vogel has been impressed by Nason's energy, vision and insistence that the center's organization and outward presence be established at a suitably rapid pace.

"Shawn's not doing things in the typical, humble university way," Vogel says. "Anything to raise awareness of the entrepreneurial community, we're in."

The time of his life

Working fast is just how Nason likes it. The last two months have been deluged with meetings and networking events, with CFI already establishing a progressive reputation in Cincinnati's startup sector.

"I'm having the time of my life," says Nason, who enjoys golfing and shopping when not hanging out with wife Carla and 6-year-old daughter Kayla. "I'm seeing first-hand how the culture is changing."

This go-get-'em attitude was forged over two decades driving growth and efficiency in high-demand financial settings. With The Walt Disney Company, Nason spent three-plus years as an "imageneer" responsible for forecasting and budgeting hundred million dollar projects. Juggling numbers has never been the fun part, however. He derives much more enjoyment from enabling coworkers to use creative means to reach their purpose and potential.

"I'm a connector who's passionate about developing that spark in each person," Nason says. "It's great being part of someone's transformation."

Creativity is ingrained into the Tucson native's DNA. Nason's first career was as a musician, with countless hours spent at the piano writing music or just playing whatever came into his head. The ability to invent on the spot transferred nicely to the boardroom, he says, while the switch to university life has come at the same time Nason is completing a doctorate in business administration.

"I love learning," he says. "What better place to do it than in higher education, where you have the freedom to create?"

Connecting with Cincinnati's talented dreamers is the ember that heats Nason's passion for innovation and creativity. If all goes as planned, his vision will grow into a towering inferno at CFI.

"When I get that 'aha moment' from people, it makes me want to see it more and more," Nason says.
 
Douglas J. Guth is a journalist and freelance writer from Cleveland. 
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