Ken Baldauf, technology advocate and director of PIC at FSU talks Tallahassee tech, startups and student innovation.
For our second Startup Capital interview, we chatted with Ken Baldauf, director at FSU’s Program in Interdisciplinary Computing (PIC) and lead organizer of FSU’s annual DIGITECH conference. Below, Ken provides an inside look into what’s happening with tech at FSU and what the university is doing to support tech and entrepreneurship.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in Tallahassee since you’ve lived here?
I have seen more change in Tallahassee in the past few years than I’ve seen in my 30 years living here. There have been many interesting developments. Cascades park, Domi Station, the whole South side renovation, the Tallahassee Mall is going through major changes — over the time I’ve been here Tallahassee has been growing east and north with subdivisions and residential areas, but now we’re starting to see a lot more progress in the city center, south and west. Downtown vitality is coming back strong. There’s exciting new construction projects going on downtown, in college town, all over Gaines Street… I’m not sure what is planned over the next 5 years, but it’s all very exciting.
What do you see as the driving force behind Tallahassee’s recent growth?
I know that our new mayor is working hard. From the University perspective I know that FSU’s recent presidents have forged a strong alliance with the city and county that is helping drive growth. I know FAMU is equally involved and TCC has a very engaged president who’s doing a lot of work. It seems as though the coming together of multiple forces around common goals is what’s pushing our city’s recent developments.
What do you think some of these goals are or should be?
Well as someone coming from FSU, I really like the idea of working to keep students in Tallahassee. I think that’s been a great initiative -trying to keep the talent that we educate here in Tallahassee to do great things for the town and state. I think it’s also equally important to the future of the city to bring a youthful type of attitude and energy, but it’s hard to do without a strong industry presence. Maybe that too could come from a kind of grass roots effort. If we make this town appealing to young people who are graduating, we might start attracting industry as well, offering businesses a young, vibrant workforce.
“..the coming together of multiple forces around common goals is what’s pushing our city’s recent developments.”
Do you think Tallahassee’s “brain drain” is a result of the traditional university student view of Tallahassee as a stepping stone to places like Atlanta or Austin?
I think a lot of it is geography related. The students who come from this area are ready to get out to the big cities and see what life is all about. I know many of our graduates go to Atlanta, Orlando, and other nearby large cities looking for excitement. We also have the big corporations recruiting students out of here. Many students who are graduating are at a point in their lives where they’re ready to see the world and don’t have any strong reason to stay in their school town or even in their home town. So if you have big companies recruiting here and giving them the option to move to multiple locations across the country, I can’t blame them for taking the opportunity to experience a different geography. Ironically, many of those same students end up moving back to Tallahassee later in life, to raise their family in a smaller community.
Do you think that all this development will help keep some talent here?
I think it’s happening already. Domi Station has a lot to do with that. Several past students of mine in technology and design have elected to stick around Tallahassee for a little while and see what happens. I’m certain that public spaces like Cascades Park are going to help attract young people. If we can get students engaged with the city here before they graduate then there’s a better chance they’ll stay.
Our developing startup community in Tallahassee is also a magnet for students. The new entrepreneurial university initiative helps to develop that kind of culture within the school and community. The Jim Moran gift for the school of entrepreneurship –I think that’s going to make a big difference in the coming years for engaging students and developing students who want to start a business. Hopefully our entrepreneurial students will choose Tallahassee as a home for their businesses.
“…several past students of mine in technology and design have elected to stick around Tallahassee for a little while and see what happens.”
Where do you see entrepreneurship in the scope of all this development?
Entrepreneurship in higher education is a fascinating area in which many of us at FSU are fully engaged. I’ve been of the mind that while only a small percentage of students may be inclined to start their own businesses, entrepreneurial thinking, intrapreneurial capacity, and innovation are important skills for all students. A broad view of entrepreneurship includes all of these skills.
We’re in the age of the “gig economy,” where professionals move from one job to another within a very short timeframe compared to years past. So I think all of our students need to learn how to represent themselves well and to figure out where their strengths and passions lie. Entrepreneurial skills can assist students with these challenges.
My focus is innovation. The more I explore innovation frameworks like “design thinking,” and the “innovation genome project,” the more I realize that the ability to innovate independently and in groups is the most important skill we can provide to students in every degree program.
Where do you see developments with tech in Tallahassee moving over the next few years?
Well, the tech business community is important to Tallahassee’s future. I’m involved with TalTech, and several successful technology businesses in Tallahassee. Unfortunately, local tech companies have only so much capacity for hiring our grads. We’re working to discover what technical expertise is in demand locally and adjusting curricula accordingly. Fortunately, in some technology fields you can live anywhere you want and work for a company remotely, that’s something for students to explore as well.
What’s exciting to you about Tallahassee right now?
Lately, I’ve been enjoying touring around Tallahassee with out-of-town visitors. I just love driving down Gaines Street and showing off everything that’s happening on the south side of town, College Town, FAMU Way, Cascades Park, The Edison. I have a real sense of pride in our community. I love the culture and the arts in Railroad Square, and I think that whole area has huge potential for becoming the heart and soul of Tallahassee.
“The more I explore innovation.. the more I realize that the ability to innovate independently and in groups is the most important skill we can provide to students in every degree program.”
I’m finding increasingly that the most creative types of solutions to problems come out of environments like our Railroad Square area, where people from a wide variety of backgrounds meet and generate new innovative ideas. “Creating collisions” is a popular concept for driving innovation. Board rooms and committee meetings often stifle creativity. We need environments where people are free to think outside of the typical boundaries. That’s what excites me the most.
The potential for downtown is very exciting as well, but we have to be patient. All of us want to achieve our end goals overnight, but it takes time and long-term effort to move large organizations and communities. If you look over the last few years, I think you’ll agree that things are actually progressing quickly. Some days, it seems like I just woke up and there’s a whole new part of Tallahassee to discover.
What role do you think events like Digitech, the TalTech conference and HackFSU play in fostering this type of community?
Because of time limits, my focus has been almost exclusively on the University. Building a culture of innovation within the university is my goal, with an understanding that as that culture of innovation starts to grow at FSU it will naturally start to overlap with similarly minded people outside of FSU. The DIGITECH event, where students show off their innovations with technology, has been a useful catalyst for student innovation, and a fun way for the community to see student projects. DIGITECH, the Innolevation Challenge and the FSU’s Hackathon, all combine to promote innovation and entrepreneurship across campus.
FSU has incredibly innovative graduate programs. There is no innovation lacking here. Some of us are focussing on building a more innovative, interdisciplinary spirit in our undergraduate population. We need to inspire our undergrads to discover their passions and figure out what they can uniquely contribute to this world. We need to do this using a methodology that lets students see where new ideas can be found and developed and how they can use that power to set their own course and change the world.
“Building a culture of innovation within the university is my goal”
There are a lot of efforts towards innovation all around campus in every department. We have groups that are formed around critical thinking, 3D printing, engineering and fabrication, design thinking, computing and technology and entrepreneurship –so our goal over the next year is to better integrate these independent efforts into a campuswide innovation and entrepreneurship initiative. We are working to create an environment where academic units are communicating and sharing resources. Then we can start to build on that with an innovation center of our own that’s accessible to all students.
These efforts are beginning to spread beyond our campus walls into the community. I’ve been branching out and working with some FSU colleagues and the team at Tallahassee’s new CoLab at The Pod. We are planning an innovation-focussed monthly event for the Tallahassee community. More to come on that later this summer. But overall, we need to organize these things so that we’re all supporting each other’s activities and that there’s one big city-wide effort.
Is the new Jim Moran school of entrepreneurship one effort to do that?
The new Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship will be the unifying core of all of these efforts. The key is in the word interdisciplinary. The new school will serve as an interdisciplinary school of entrepreneurship. It will serve students in every major. FSU has our entrepreneurs in residence across campus that over the past year have joined in a council that meets every month to chart the course for entrepreneurship at FSU. And it’s not just for entrepreneurs, it’s for the entrepreneur in us all.
The Jim Moran gift is unifying all the innovation and entrepreneurship-related efforts around campus, including student groups like FSU’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Technole, to provide relevant education through every channel.
Is there anything the school could be doing better to support these types of students?
Finding collaborative space for student projects, workshops, events and hackathons has been a challenge. Designating space for a student innovation center and makerspace similar to those at other universities would be a great service to our university community. We’re working on it.
In addition to that, we’re finding that students’ needs and interests aren’t always served through traditional 3-credit hour courses. Students are finding subject areas that they’re passionate about and building student organizations around those topics, offering meetings, workshops, and events, and providing educational opportunities for themselves outside the classroom. We need to learn from our students and explore new methods of learning and earning credit hours that engage students and provide them with skills valued in the marketplace. Codecamps, workshops, experiential learning opportunities, these are all in the discussion as we work to build our new School of Entrepreneurship.
“We need to learn from our students and explore new methods of education and earning credit hours that engage students and provide them with skills valued in the marketplace.”
Our challenge, as educators in higher ed, is to develop the best curriculum that engages undergrad students through multiple educational models, provides interdisciplinary opportunities and experiential learning, infused with the latest technologies and innovation frameworks, while continuing to provide the highest-quality liberal studies-based education. Never underestimate the solid foundation provided by a good liberal-studies education.
What advice would you give to a student who’s a non-major but wanted to get a part of this tech movement?
The goal of PIC courses is to provide entry-level courses in technical areas such as web design, coding, data analysis, spreadsheets, and digital graphic design to ALL students. So, our courses are a great place to start a journey into technology.
We hope to acquire some innovation space where we can expand our offerings to include courses in 3D design and design thinking so that students can learn more about the design process, how to design and make objects virtually, and then bring their designs to life on 3D printers, laser cutters and other devices.
PIC would like to impact many more students with valuable technical and design skills. There are many areas of interest in innovation and technology yet to be added to our curriculum but it’s going to require some investment in space and personnel. We look forward to engaging with students, student organizations, and campus partners to bring our vision of an innovation-centered undergrad experience to reality. Student organizations are huge because they’re not only learning things but they’re also building relationships with others who have similar interests. Together as a group you can get all sorts of resources and opportunities that are very difficult to have access to when you’re sitting in a dorm room.
Thanks again to Ken Baldauf for answering our questions. With its three public learning institutions, higher education is sown into Tallahassee’s very fabric. As the city continues to grow, these colleges and universities will be instrumental in providing the talent and support our tech businesses need to thrive. That’s why advocates like Ken, working in the trenches to make innovation education a part of FSU’s mission, are so vital to the city’s future.
Ken Baldauf can be found at techminded.co, where he publishes a weekly podcast about the latest developments in tech. Follow Ken for updates from the front lines of innovation and be sure to subscribe to our mailing list to get the latest from Startup Capital.