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

11/18/11Follow @gthuang

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(prominent entrepreneurs, executives, investors, lawyers, and other business leaders). All of these activities are geared toward students, Jones says.

3. It’s different. Don’t lump the i-lab in with the other incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and student entrepreneurship programs sweeping the land. The lab takes no stake in any startups and charges no rent, and it is open to all comers. There is no particular sector focus—students might be interested in anything from medical devices or life sciences to cleantech or consumer Internet. And they have a lot to learn in any field. “We’re student driven, we’re not looking for corporate sponsors,” he says.

4. It will take time to gauge its impact. The i-lab is biting off a lot here. It is trying to nurture student entrepreneurship and satisfy Harvard’s vast bureaucracy, while also building deep relationships in the business community. The danger is that it becomes a sprawling, unfocused mess with vague goals and overlords who thwart its progress every step of the way. For now, it’s fair to say the lab doesn’t even know what its impact should be yet. But Jones seems to think that focusing on what students need is the right approach. “I don’t know how this movie ends, but let’s course-correct as we go,” he says.

5. Things will change a lot in the coming years. As the i-lab feels its way forward, it will evolve significantly. “We’ve given ourselves a period of three years to fertilize the fields equally,” Jones says. “Come year three, we’ll pick up our heads and say, ‘What parts of the garden are growing here?’ We’ll see if there are areas we want to focus on, or areas to prune.” Jones certainly has hypotheses about the lab’s impact, but he’s not sharing them just yet—he’s too busy testing them. “Why should we predetermine what kind of impact Harvard students should have? Let’s see what the students can do,” he says.

One early anecdote: Jones says a few weeks ago, a biology grad student was chatting with a couple of business school students in the i-lab. The business students were talking about a problem that reminded the biology student of r/K selection theory in ecology (tradeoffs between quantity and quality of offspring). One of the business students found that interesting and said, “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

“That would never happen in most universities,” Jones says. “I can do all the programming I want, but it’s that structured spontaneity—that’s what makes this special.”

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. Follow @gthuang

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