Project X-ITE takes off

DU launches inter-disciplinary center for entrepreneurship

By Jan Wondra

Higher education is not necessarily known for innovation. Its nature is measured in academic tradition and research, which is what makes the University of Denver’s announcement that it has created an interdisciplinary program to bring together engineering, business and law so interesting.

Project X-ITE launched in late 2015 but got a major boost with the arrival in April of DU alum and local entrepreneur Erik Mitisek, the project’s executive director.

“We’re focusing on innovations in instructional technology. One of the things that higher education is doing is changing from pedagogy to learning design,” Vice Chancellor Armin Afashi said. “Think of engaged learning—instructional design that moves beyond the techniques of pretechnology days. Our faculty is working together across the aisles, across the halls, and from there magic happens.”

The interdisciplinary program is DU’s play for a visible role in innovation. Only two months prior, the man charged with coordinating X-ITE was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to become Colorado’s chief innovation officer.

Mitisek says DU’s Project X-ITE name is purposeful.

“The I-T-E initials stand for innovation, technology and excitement,” he said. “For me, it’s a perfect opportunity to work alongside the department heads whose schools of higher education are preparing tomorrow’s business leaders. The governor is deeply invested in building innovation, in encouraging entrepreneurship and building better institutions of higher learning. I get really excited by this opportunity to serve.”

The interdisciplinary approach is part of Chancellor Rebecca Chopp’s vision. One of the cornerstones of the DU 2025 strategic plan is to foster a far greater number of cross-discipline projects and partnerships—and hiring has reflected that.  Last summer, DU hired Denver entrepreneur J.B. Holston, named one of the most influential people in Colorado, as dean of engineering and computer science—followed by Mitisek, who served as co-chair of Startup Colorado.

He says his role includes creating partnerships that forge new opportunities for the DU community across disciplines to connect to each other and to the broader innovation economy.

“As executive director of Project X-ITE, it’s my role to connect creative thinkers and doers in industry and government to faculty and students around the intersection of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship,” Mitisek said.

Oversight of the interdisciplinary project includes not just Mitisek, but a collaboration with the deans of the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, the Daniels College of Business and the Sturm College of Law. The goal is nothing less than turning DU into the Stanford of the mountain west.

Mitisek stresses that DU’s program reach isn’t just metro Denver, but the state, the region, the country and the world.

“We’re looking to position DU as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship-related higher education,” Mitisek said. “This is the start of a change for the entire university. Right now, students have to be enrolled in one of the three schools, “But we want to roll this across campus as soon as possible. Next will be the School of Arts and Humanities, the School of International Studies and the School of Music. This will go institution-wide.”

To accomplish that, DU is looking at a shift in its entire value chain.

“What we’re doing at DU is quite unique—to bridge these various disciplines,” Afashi said. “It opens the door to a new approach … to foster the environment of innovation. My role is to find the funding, to expand the delivery structure.”

Chopp sums it up this way: “DU is at another inflection point in its history. It is a special time to be on campus.”

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