Harvard Innovation Lab Opens to Foster New Generation of Student Entrepreneurs: Five Things We’ve Already Learned

11/18/11Follow @gthuang

When last we checked in with Gordon Jones, it was six months ago and he had just been appointed the inaugural director of the Harvard Innovation Lab. It was May, the birds were singing, the Red Sox had pulled out of their season-starting slump, and anything seemed possible.

Now the cold, dark days are upon us, and we need a place to rejuvenate our spirits as we gear up for the holiday season. Students and young entrepreneurs especially need such a place. The Harvard i-lab, as it is called, might be that place—a $20 million center whose mission is to support all Harvard students interested in entrepreneurship. And it is officially open for business as of today, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, school administrators, and politicians.

The important news is that the i-lab is real, and it marks a serious and ambitious effort to foster entrepreneurship on a grand scale. The unstated goal is to keep the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg from leaving town (and Harvard) and building a multibillion-dollar company somewhere else. Will it work? Who knows, but you have to start somewhere.

Back in May, Jones talked with me about just trying to get his baby to first grade—the idea being, walk before you run. He has been heads-down since then, but I recently caught up with him about the i-lab’s opening, and the progress and challenges to date. (And yes, he hosted Zuckerberg’s recent visit to the lab.)

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far,” Jones says. “It’s genuine, the interest here, and the level of engagement across the Harvard schools is strong.” He says that the overall support from the university and the enthusiasm from the academic and business communities “exceeds what I expected.”

Jones adds, “When we first talked six months ago, there was this question of, ‘Is Harvard late to the game?’ I think this is a great time to be doing what Harvard is doing.” And that is, in his words, “trying to bring the best of Harvard’s knowledge and network and make it available to students. And being part of the Boston innovation community.”

Here are my takeaways going into the first day of school at the i-lab:

1. Jones isn’t going anywhere. Yes, he has an extremely challenging job. (You try being accountable to seven different deans across Harvard, for starters.) The fact that he’s still alive and kicking—not to mention attending lots of entrepreneurship events and getting to know students and the local business community at every turn—bodes well for the lab’s future. “You’ve got to pick your battles,” he says.

2. The lab is already active. It officially opens today, but stuff has been happening there for months already: a “startup weekend scramble,” guest speakers (the series includes Eric Ries, Peter Thiel, and Jeff Taylor), Harvard courses on entrepreneurship and global innovation, special panels, startup workshops (Alex Taussig led one about mistakes entrepreneurs make; Eric Paley did one on career choices), and one-on-one consultations with “experts in residence” and “innovation partners” … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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