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” (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 or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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