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At Penn State, a Former Frat House Becomes an 'Ideas Incubator'

The co.space will bring together college students and working professionals to create change in the community.

Imagine as many as 60 entrepreneurial college students living under a single roof and being mentored by successful professionals in their chosen fields. That's the idea behind a social living project called co.space in State College, Pennsylvania.


Starting in fall 2013, the world's first co.space will be housed in a former Penn State fraternity house, and will even include two "chapter staff," like house moms, to chaperone the eclectic group of individuals. But the group has loftier goals than its dwelling might suggest: Organizers hope to cultivate an idea incubator that could lead to the creation of game-changing startups and nonprofits.

The idea for co.space was developed by nonprofit "social innovation incubator" New Leaf Initiative. It grew out of an Ashoka U Exchange conference two years ago, and recently won Ashoka U and GOOD Maker's Exchange 60 Day Challenge. It was inspired by similar incubator models like The Embassy Network and the Unreasonable Institute.

Working with more than 50 student interns from Penn State, New Leaf built the framework that will serve as a model for other universities interested in the project: a two-year program for juniors and seniors that includes a semester of training, the opportunity to lead a semester-long project, a summer internship, and a personal mentor—plus a plethora of professional networking options in-house.
Spud Marshall, co-founder of the co.space and executive director at New Leaf Initiative, says co.space is designed to build connections between college students and professionals so they can create change in their community. "We want to focus on where the real learning happens, which is outside of the classroom. We wanted to keep conversations going at the kitchen table, living room, dining table, and we thought, 'How can we intervene in that space?'" he says. "'What if you take these large properties in various towns, build things where students live beside real people and entrepreneurs—a whole category of people that we get inspired by?'"
Rather than creating an entirely new network, Marshall hopes the co.space will take advantage of existing ones through partnerships with organizations like Echoing Green and Ashoka U. The key is a balance between entrepreneurs and "intrapreneurs," dreamers and "doers." For now, the co.space experiment will focus primarily on local food markets. Potential projects include starting a student farm at the university or figuring out how to transform food supply chains.

Twenty years from now, co.space organizers, hope, there will be one incubator in every country in the world. The team is in talks with leaders from 30 different cities—from Tel Aviv, Israel to Kingston, Jamaica—to launch similar spaces there. Eventually, cutting-edge video technology will allow innovators, entrepreneurs, and consultants to stay in constant communication and collaborate on projects across the globe.

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