Helix Innovation Center is a ‘Playground’ for Research

Written by Robert Leitch.

Groups of researchers working in a massive open area, testing for new and innovative ways for restaurants to keep the heat in their kitchens, not their dining rooms — or for families to find more efficient ways to keep their homes warm in the winter. That’s a typical scene inside Emerson’s Helix Innovation Center on the University of Dayton campus, where researchers brainstorm new ideas and test them in five real-world simulated environments called “sandboxes.” The center is designed to work similar to the way a child playing in a sandbox can come up with an idea, build it, and undo their work easily to build something new.

Inside each sandbox, scientists can adjust temperatures from -30 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity levels from 20 to 90 percent. Ideas can be tested in typical weather conditions for Florida one day and Alaska the next to determine how things react in each temperature variation. Using this technology, what used to take a year of field testing can now be accomplished in a week at the Helix Innovation Center.

“We have the ability to make the seasons change, alter the weather conditions and place each of these entities in a different part of the world,” said Rajan Rajendran, vice president of systems innovation and sustainability at Emerson. “Having this flexibility allows us to rapidly evaluate potential solutions from different perspectives without ever leaving the building.”

The 40,000 square foot facility opened in April 2016 and is equipped with large meeting spaces full of whiteboard walls where researchers can scrawl new ideas for indoor climate control solutions. For example, researchers are currently working on ways to detect refrigerant chemical leaks. As soon as they brainstorm a potential solution, they can try their idea in a self-contained fully-furnished house, restaurant with a commercial kitchen, grocery store, data center or the commercial building of the Helix Center itself.

Emerson’s Helix Innovation Center sits on five acres of land on the University of Dayton campus. The 14 Emerson employees who work there full-time often partner with the university on research projects and host internships for UD students. The center also collaborates with other academic communities, healthcare organizations and manufacturers that visit the Helix Innovation Center. Rajendran says that by listening to people from other industries, they are discovering problems they didn’t even know existed, and can work toward the solutions together.

“The ease of collaboration is really what makes the Innovation Center special,” said Rajendran. “There’s not a single cubicle or barrier anywhere in this building. We have a lot of really smart people in our organization and in the groups we work with, and our goal is to link all of that brainpower.”

Rajendran says they considered several sites across the country before breaking ground on the Helix Innovation Center, choosing to build in Ohio because of financial support through the state’s Ohio Third Frontier initiative. He says the center is committed to being a part of the Dayton community and supporting the local economy with the research communities that utilize the facility daily.

“On any given day there are up to 100 researchers at the Innovation Center,” said Rajendran. “Many of them are from out of town and are staying at the hotels and eating at restaurants downtown. This facility is valuable in so many applications and we’re excited that all of this innovation is happening here in Dayton.”

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