Ex-Sigma Phi Epsilon house to be home for innovation

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Virginia Tech is inviting a group of young entrepreneurs to live in the new $5.1 million house that was left empty when the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity was kicked off campus in May for bad behavior.

The announced plan sounds like the plot to a new reality TV show: fill a mansion with innovators, give them some guidance and then watch startups roll out the front door.

The so-called Innovate living-learning community is accepting applications as it looks for 35 male and female freshmen from any major. Applicants need only have an "entrepreneurial spirit." The university has 16 similar programs for groups ranging from female engineers to volunteers. But this will be the only one stationed in a former fraternity house.

University officials were excited to talk about the new program as they danced around the touchy subject of the previous tenant. But Nathan Latka, an entrepreneur involved with the program, probably wasn't the only one who saw the irony of the situation. He laughed at the thought of the new tenants sitting around the same table where party themes used to be hatched. The only difference, he said, this time they'll be creating million-dollar startups.

Latka knows just how productive this kind of space can be. The 23-year-old worked out of a Virginia Tech dorm room when he was one of the founders of Heyo, a startup that designs social media campaigns for companies like Lilly Pulitzer. Heyo is now a multimillion-dollar operation with 16 employees. But Latka said it all started with Red Bull-fueled brainstorming sessions with classmates in Tech's Barringer Hall.

He says new ideas require "random collisions."

The house "has got all the amenities built in," Latka said. "It allows random ideation to happen at any moment. It increases the chances that two freshmen who would have never known each other from two disciplines to really collide and engage and ideate."

Hayden Lee, president of Tech's Entrepreneur Club, said his biggest fear is that the university isn't thinking big enough with the project. He wants to see it become the kind of free-flowing idea machine he and Latka work to create when they're away from campus. He pictures a house with designated hacking space, high-tech gadgets lying around and a program flexible enough to let students explore new ideas.

In its first year, Latka thinks Innovate should be able to attract 300 applicants, draw $3 million worth of investment and create 30 jobs.

The professors who will be running the program say most of the details are still up in the air, but they expect the program to be connected to some nontraditional courses and possibly a degree or certificate program. They hope to create a cohort of students who will stay together for multiple years.

Frank Shushok Jr., the associate vice president for student affairs, said he would be disappointed if he didn't see results in the form of new companies born in the house.

"You take a house, a beautiful house, that is well appointed with the right technology and you put creative students there," he said. "You connect them with alumni that are in the midst creating, launching businesses and entrepreneurial ideas and put them with faculty who have been studying and are gifted in this area for a long time. The possibilities of what can happen are immeasurable."

The house is a stately brick building that overlooks the Virginia Tech Golf Course. It features a full kitchen, dining area, board room and multiple living rooms with leather furniture and big-screen TVs.

The house was built with a significant portion of SigEp fraternity money, but the agreement that let the organization build on campus stipulated that the property still belongs to Tech. So even if SigEp recolonizes, which is a minimum of two years away, the university is free to use the facility as it pleases, at least over that period.

SigEp's Greek letters have been removed from above the front door, but a few reminders of the houses original purpose have been left behind: the entryway floor mat bearing the fraternity's crest, a trophy case with its 2010 Most Improved Chapter Award.

The house was the first to be built under a cost-sharing mechanism available to Greek organizations that want to live on-campus. Fraternities or sororities can move into the Oak Lane subdivision if they design a house and shoulder some of the construction costs. In return, they're given first option to live in the house for as long as they're on campus. But the organizations' payments are considered philanthropic donations and Virginia Tech still owns the property.

SigEp alumni have already donated $970,000 of the $2 million they pledged as part of their agreement to build the house at 2475 Oak Lane, according to the university.

But just one semester after its members moved in, the national SigEp organization pulled the chapter's charter in May.

An organizational report shared with The Roanoke Times detailed a slew of drug-, alcohol- and violence-related incidents that led to the dissolution. The new house had damaged columns, doors and donor plaques. One SigEp member reportedly tried to break into a janitor's closet and another urinated on a door.

After efforts to reform did little to change the culture, SigEp was removed from the Virginia Tech campus.

University spokesman Mark Owczarski said the chapter would still have the choice to move back into the house if it recolonizes. But the earliest that could happen, if at all, is two years away.

In the meantime, the space belongs to the entrepreneurs.

"It's an incredible facility. And to not put something exciting in there, doesn't make much sense," Shushok said.

A steering committee made up of undergraduate students, alumni, professors and administrators met at the house on Friday as they continue to work out the details of what the program will look like. Shushok said they had no idea the house would become available to make the program possible even two months ago. But since the first students will soon move in for the fall semester, they don't have any time to waste.

The Pamplin College of Business is heading up the program, but officials have emphasized it's about more than just their students.

Robert Sumichrast, who took over as Pamplin's new dean on July 1, said he came in too late to take credit for Innovate, but it's exactly the kind of thing he wants to see more of out of the business school. As administrators develop themes for the college and update the strategic plan, he said entrepreneurship and building closer relationships to other disciplines will be a major priority.

"It was the possibility of something like this that was one of the things that drew me to Virginia Tech," Sumichrast said. "The possibility of having this sort of collaboration between business and other various disciplines around campus, that was one of the things that drew me here. So it is very exciting to see it almost immediately taking shape in this very real form."