ECU's Isley Innovation Hub opens, providing resources for all students

In 2017, Van and Jennifer Isley gave a $2 million gift  to establish a place where East Carolina University students can have “creative collisions,” which produce innovation and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship major Katie Rowland hopes to use Isley Hub to meet peers who could assist her with getting her nonprofit idea off the ground.

Entrepreneurship major Katie Rowland hopes to use Isley Hub to meet peers who could assist her with getting her nonprofit idea off the ground.


The Wornom Makerspace is named in memory of Sam Wornom, a regional entrepreneur who served ECU in many capacities, including the university’s Board of Trustees, Board of Visitors, Foundation, Real Estate Foundation and the Pirate Club. The space houses equipment where ECU students can develop early-stage prototypes to help advance their entrepreneurial ideas.

In memory of Wornom, the College of Business and the ECU Foundation have created the Samuel J. Wornom III Innovation Center Operating Fund. The fund’s purpose is to provide annual support, supplies and equipment for the Isley Innovation Hub.

“Sam was a true Pirate who gave to ECU and wanted to see students succeed,” said Mike Harris, interim dean of the ECU College of Business. “The fund is an extension of his legacy in the ECU community and will provide resources critical to operating the Isley Hub.”

The fund is accepting donations with the ultimate goal of raising $1 million. To give, visit give.ecu.edu/samwornom.

Today, the result of that gift — the Isley Innovation Hub — is now fully open. It’s 15,000 square feet of ideation and a makerspace, serving as the place where the ECU community can gather, develop and validate ideas (entrepreneurial or classwork), create early-stage prototypes, identify team members, and connect with other hopeful entrepreneurs.

“I’m excited to see it open and that students are utilizing it,” said Van Isley ’85. “It’s designed to give ECU students the ability to launch a business and help themselves, the university and eastern North Carolina.”

Utilization in force

Some of the first students to utilize the Isley Hub are RISE29 students, who are using the space as their primary work location. They spend time collaborating with teammates and peers to work on projects and consult with small business clients throughout eastern North Carolina.

Their work includes intense industry research, the development of recommendations and strategies, and the implementation of those suggestions to support their small business clients.

Junior Cameron Brown of Raleigh is a community and regional planning major in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences. His RISE29 team collaborates in the Isley Hub space to help its client — Carolina Chicken & Waffles, 2022 Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge winner — develop franchising models.

“It (the Isley Hub) has enabled my group and me to work together to discuss different issues that we are facing in figuring out how to best develop a franchise,” Brown said.

Katie Rowland is a junior entrepreneurship major. After she graduates, she hopes to launch a nonprofit company that supports parents and children in the foster care process by providing resources, time and assistance in transitions from home to home and out of the foster care systems. She sees the Isley Hub as a place to collaborate with peers with interests that complement her potential startup.

“I am seeking assistance from my peers who have the different services my organization will offer,” Rowland said. “Whether it’s financial advising, educational advising, religious opportunities, I will be looking (to work with) peers with proficient knowledge in those areas.”

Brown and Rowland work in the almost 6,000 square feet of space that’s immediately accessible as soon as one enters the Isley Hub’s glass doors. The big, open space is adorned with chairs, couches and worktables specifically designed to encourage collaboration and conversation. A team room and a conference room line the back wall; a teaching lab and the Wornom Makerspace are to the right; and another teaching lab and one-button studio, to be built out later, are to the left.

The Miller School of Entrepreneurship, the Crisp Small Business Resource Center and the Air Force Leadership Center are housed in the Isley Hub.

Now that it’s open

Dr. Dennis Barber III is the acting director of the Miller School and oversees the Isley Hub operations. Since the opening, he has seen students from all walks of campus life utilize the Isley Hub. Industry, elected officials and community members have held meetings in the space.

“Everyone is excited about it,” Barber said. “They think what the space provides is cool, but they’re just unsure how to incorporate it with what they are doing.”

The “they” Barber refers to is ECU faculty and leadership. Barber says now that the Isley Hub is open, it’s up to him and his team to build relationships and support structures that can help ECU leadership and department chairs communicate the value of the Isley space, no matter the major, no matter the college.

“We have the right people in the space; we need to build relationships and figure out our next steps to be connected throughout the university’s different levels so that students know how to use the Isley Hub and have incentives to do so,” Barber said.

“It’s a collaborative effort to pull it (Isley Hub) all together, but hopefully, we can create some successes and provide some opportunities,” Isley said. “The Isley Hub aligns perfectly with ECU’s mission of student success and regional transformation.”

Dr. Dennis Barber III, center, speaks to Cameron Brown, right, about Brown’s RISE29 project. Brown’s RISE29 team collaborates regularly in the Isley Hub since its opening.

Dr. Dennis Barber III, center, speaks to Cameron Brown about Brown’s RISE29 project. Brown’s RISE29 team collaborates regularly in the Isley Hub since its opening.