MIXing it up: Student innovators find a place to create


It has been busy year at the Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX). Since the George Mason University makerspace opened in its new space in Horizon Hall in September 2021, it has seen a lot of traffic—more than 9,000 visitors in spring 2022—and has some successes to report.

students working in the mix
Students work on a the sustainable container challenge sponsored by Mason's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

The MIX, a part of Mason Enterprise, is home to a makerspace and fabrication lab, a digital media lab, and a startup incubator, offering creative thinkers everything from metal fabrication to business mentoring. It is open to all members of the Mason community regardless of their major or affiliation.

They also hired two in-house mentors: Nantuit founder and CEO Rashed Hasan, who is also executive-in-residence at Mason’s School of Business, and George Siragusa, a senior business counselor at Mason Enterprise Center’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Gisele Stolz, senior director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programs at Mason, also serves as a mentor. These mentors meet one-on-one with student entrepreneurs and provide a range of business and entrepreneurship advice.

While the MIX never had any problems attracting students in their old space in the original Fenwick Library, Stolz said the new space allows them to be more deliberate in their planning.

“This new space was an opportunity to rethink the whole operation,” said Stolz. “We’ve been practicing what we preach and applying lean startup methods to test to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Among the things that are definitely working is the small business incubator. Part of the new Horizon Hall space includes the start-up incubator space, which has 10 desks, including eight dedicated to student-led businesses. Stolz calls these desks “high-value real estate in the heart of the Fairfax Campus.”

student uses 3d printer in the MIX
A student uses the 3D printer in the MIX. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

In addition to having a dedicated space in proximity to all the amenities available in the makerspace, teams in the incubator also have access to the mentors and professional development. At the start of the academic year, the MIX had seven student companies in residence.

In the spring Stolz and her team organized a shortened version of the Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP), a program offered by the Virginia SBDC to help Virginia-led startups, for student and faculty entrepreneurs.

The three-week mini ICAP was taught by SBDC’s Senior Business Counselor David Powell and ICAP Director Josh Green. The lessons had a remarkable effect on student entrepreneurs. The course taught the student entrepreneurs a lot of the nuts and bolts about the business operations of starting a company such as creating a minimal viable product (MVP), registering the company with the state, and tax considerations.

Electrical engineering major Sai Gutala said he found the mini ICAP offered by the MIX “the most helpful thing ever.”

Gutala and his company Alphawave are part of the MIX’s incubator. With Alphawave, Gutala is developing appearance-customizable apparel. He started with footwear—and he already has a prototype that was made with the MIX’s 3D printer—but Gutala sees this as the beginning of using technology to customize personal items for self-expression. For him, the big takeaway from the mini ICAP is what he learned about customer segmentation.

“ICAP focuses on finding your ideal customer that will be loyal to your company,” said Gutala, who also founded a club during his time at Mason. “If a business can understand their customer, everything else is easy.”

Read more about Gutala and Alphawave.

Communication major Arastalis B. Choudhury and computational and data sciences major Fariha Askar, cofounders of NECX, also found the information about customer segmentation critical to building their business.

NECX, which stands for Non-Emergency Communication Exchange, is a multi-platform service that will coordinate and aid communications between victims of crime and the police and other government resources available to them.

“We had a very hard time figuring out who our customer was,” said Choudhury, who came up with the idea for the company after his car was stolen. “We knew how it could help this problem that was out in the world, but we didn't know who exactly would pay for it. ICAP really helped us with that.”

Choudhury and Askar also found value in being around other student entrepreneurs at the incubator.

“There were a few teams that were a bit ahead of us [in terms of creating a business],” said Askar. “[Hearing their stories] provided a lot of insight because we could learn from their problems and also see problems to come.”

Read more about Choudhury and Askar and their company NECX.

To learn more about the events and offerings at the MIX, visit the Mix website.