Harvard’s Opportunity to Lead

2/11/08

Last week, I was asked to moderate a panel of journalists (what a chance for an ex-candidate—this time it was my turn to ask them irritating, leading, and unfair questions!) in a discussion about the state of New England’s innovation economy. Lots was said that covers old ground, and Xconomy’s Bob Buderi has already posted on one point I raised.

But I do think it is worth discussing a bit more. I was trying to stir the pot about the question of our culture—are our attitudes part of the obstacles to an even more vibrant innovation and entrepreneurship economy? People generally think so, and when I asked for a show of hands of the conferees as to whether we compare unfavorably to Silicon Valley on this, nearly every hand shot up.

So…what can be done about that? I posited that the single biggest change would be if Harvard went from laggard and critic to leader and booster of the advance of ideas into products. After all, Harvard is one of the dominant players in our culture, and I think it is fair to say that it has greatly lagged MIT on this. MIT professors seem to take great pride in participation in startups (think Bose and Langer and many others), and the Institute places clear value on turning intellectual capital into real value for customers/patients, society, and, yes, even shareholders. As a result, Kendall Square is one of the most vibrant spots in the world for the innovation economy, especially in biotech, but there are Akamais too.

By contrast, Harvard’s record is far weaker. Not only have fewer great products and companies emanated from a university whose intellectual excellence can hardly be questioned, but worse yet there is a bad history of being clearly anti-commercialization. I believe I am correct in saying that in the early 1980s, the University forced future Nobel Prize winner Walter Gilbert to choose between founding Biogen and remaining at the University. Fortunately, he picked Biogen and got it off the ground before eventually returning to the ivory tower. Even this year, I was struck by the contrast between the commencement speeches of outgoing Interim President Derek Bok and commencement speaker Bill Gates. Bok has been a wonderful leader for Harvard, stepping into the void after Larry Summers’ precipitous departure to serve a second, brief term as President. He is clearly a good man. But when he said in his speech that the growing criticality of universities and their innovations to the economy was “for better or for worse,” I thought what could be for worse? It felt to me that he was projecting Harvard’s traditional squeamishness about embracing commercialization.

Then Gates rose and delivered a stirring speech worth reading. Gates has become a critical public voice for the duties of the successful to lead and give back, and his speech about a Harvard that valued making a difference in the world was inspirational. While he emphasized his key interests, global health and poverty and U.S. education, I thought about the difference Harvard could make by accelerating the process of turning its best people’s best ideas into realities—something that usually requires commercialization.

To be fair, Summers cared a lot about this, and his excellent Provost Steve Hyman, happily retained by new President Drew Gilpin Faust, has been moving aggressively. Harvard has recruited a far more proactive and hungry commercialization team, which is beginning to really make a difference. But cultures move slowly and we are still a long way from Harvard being the Stanford of the East (ouch!) when it comes to convincing undergrads, graduate students, and faculty that by caring about how an idea can become a reality, you translate intellectual innovation into human and societal benefit. And it’s OK to make some money doing so.

Harvard has a huge opportunity on the horizon. The university is gearing up for a transformative set of developments on the Boston bank of the Charles in Allston that will leave Harvard as much or more of a Boston institution than a Cambridge one. This new campus should be built with an eye towards fomenting a Kendall Square-like boom around it of hot new companies solving medical, environmental, and other challenges by turning great ideas into great products and companies.

I can think of no greater catalyst to Massachusetts’ success in the coming century in the innovation economy than a Harvard that turns its fiercesome competitive capabilities towards this good goal.

P.S. Full disclosure—I am a Harvard grad (class of 1981) and an elected member of the Board of the Harvard Alumni Association. Plus, I do want to stay on their good side, what with five kids in the college pipeline!

Chris Gabrieli is an entrepreneur, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, and a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate. Follow @

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