Duke Engineering’s new Wilkinson Building gives students space—and support—to craft innovative tools that can translate into entrepreneurial success
After more than a decade of planning and three years of construction, the Wilkinson Building on Duke University’s West Campus officially opened to students in January 2021.
With more than 150,000 square feet of space spread across five floors, the new building expands the Pratt School of Engineering’s education space by 50 percent. But rather than simply offer standard classrooms and office spaces to Duke engineers, the Wilkinson Building was designed to specifically encourage collaboration among students, staff and faculty in the four engineering departments, and across the university as a whole.
Inside the building, this is especially evident in the research neighborhoods, which span the top three floors and place interdisciplinary faculty together to work on common topics including innovations in human health; environmental health; and advanced computing and intelligent systems.
Throughout the rest of the building, large, bright gathering spaces provide spots for students to work and chat, and four active-learning classrooms equipped with entire walls of whiteboards and moveable furniture give professors maximum flexibility for teaching, allowing for both traditional lectures and hands-on, team-based lessons.
But for Eric Richardson and Paul Fearis, some of the most exciting collaborative spaces in the Wilkinson Building are the sprawling design labs on the first floor.
Design Health students plan out their prototype in the new design lab in the Wilkinson Building
A Hub for Collaborative Design
Richardson and Fearis lead the Design Health Program and Medical Device Design certificate, both operated by Duke BME. Although the medical device design certificate caters specifically to Duke BME graduate students and Design Health is open to students across the university, both programs teach students how to identify unmet clinical needs and develop innovative solutions.
“We teach students how to immerse themselves in a clinical environment and how to identify when things aren’t working,” says Fearis, a senior lecturing fellow in Duke BME. “Is a tool awkward for a surgeon to use? Does a simple procedure or task take a really long time? Do things always get in someone’s way? These are questions we teach our students to ask as they make observations, because these are areas where something can be improved.”
After spending time in the clinic and working with physicians and nurses to identify these problems, students form interdisciplinary teams to brainstorm solutions and, as the semester progresses, design and refine their prototypes.
“Design Health is an interdisciplinary program, so we have folks coming from medicine, engineering and business. Before we didn’t really have a home to bring all those groups together to collaborate, but these garage labs are really unique and wonderful because of their placement on campus,” says Richardson, an associate professor of the practice in Duke BME.
Sitting at the intersection of Duke Engineering, the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and the Duke University Medical Center, the Wilkinson Building is easily accessible by students and faculty from across Duke. It’s also located across the street from the Duke Co-Lab, which houses 3D printers and other prototyping tools for students and staff. According to Richardson and Fearis, this centralization is unusual for most design programs.
“The fact that the building and these workspaces are so accessible has made it much easier for our students to collaborate with teams in the medical center or at the business school, and that only benefits their projects,” says Richardson. “Most of the work in Design Health and Medical Device Design happens after hours because our students work in labs or full-time programs or have day jobs, and it’s great that they have a place where they can focus, build and prototype.”
But the work isn’t over after a prototype has been finalized. Instead, the student teams can move one floor down to the Sondland Durant Center for Entrepreneurship to learn how to bring their ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Students work in the Sondland Durant Center for Entrepreneurship
The Sondland Durant Center for Entrepreneurship extends throughout the Wilkinson Building’s garden level, offering offices for team leaders, a large meeting area for lectures and workshops, and a group of small teleconference rooms. This sprawling workspace is the home of EngEn, the Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship Initiative.
“EngEn is an engine for innovation––driving the cycle of problem identification, solution development and the robust launch of new ventures,” says Ken Gall, the associate dean for entrepreneurship. “Other schools certainly have entrepreneurial programs, but EngEn is unique because we now have a unified home for design, innovation and entrepreneurship, and that centralization makes it really easy to build collaborations and find entrepreneurial success.”
EngEn was created to help students, faculty and staff translate research and technologies into licenses, patents and even successful startups. By supporting a suite of design programs like Design Health, business incubators like the BRiDGE and undergraduate initiatives like the A. James Clark Scholars program, EngEn aims to streamline the entire trajectory of a product––from the formation of an idea, through the design process, and ultimately into the commercial market.
“This new space gives us an opportunity to have an open door for anyone to walk in and meet and connect with entrepreneurs and co-innovators in the Duke network,” says Fioleda Kesseli, the Executive Director of EngEn. “Having this proximity and cross-pollination will move a lot of projects forward towards commercialization and allow a whole new suite of useful technologies to come to fruition.”
“These spaces were designed to create the optimum collaborative environment,” says Bill Walker, the Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurship in Engineering. “In our larger space we’ll run workshops where we can teach students and faculty about topics like risk assessment and how to license a product. In the surrounding ‘phone booth rooms,’ we can leverage the global network of Duke alumni by teleconferencing and getting our students connected to mentors or potential investors all around the globe.
EngEn made an impact almost immediately after its formation in early 2020 with its support of the COVID-19 Engineering Response Team. This team, made of faculty, staff, students and clinicians across campus, identified critical equipment needs for health care workers during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Within six months, the team designed and produced more than 30,000 3D printable reusable face shields, developed a way to adapt surgical helmets to become powered air-purifying respirators, and even created isolation tents for patients.
Although EngEn will continue to build collaborations across Duke’s campus, program leaders are optimistic that the center’s proximity to centralized design spaces will result in new and exciting collaborations and startup opportunities.
“We know that people at Duke have phenomenal ideas, and we want to help get them out into the world,” says Walker. “Our goal is to coach them and help them along that journey, and the Center for Entrepreneurship will be where that happens.”