Founders of Harvard Experiment Fund Talk Goals, Strategy, & Zip Codes

2/2/12Follow @gthuang

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led by an outside venture firm. NEA is a founding partner, but the fund is an independent entity. Also, Chung is a three-time Harvard alum (undergrad, JD, and MBA) and spends a lot of time in Boston, though he is based in Silicon Valley. Van Vuuren has been in Boston for the better part of 10 years. “In Harvard Square, the maître d’s know Patrick better than me,” Van Vuuren quips. (The two originally met out West when Van Vuuren took part in the Y Combinator startup program some years ago.)

Another thing: Please don’t call it an incubator, or a grant-giving organization, Van Vuuren says. It’s a seed-stage investment fund, plain and simple.

In the coming months, the Experiment Fund will announce other VCs and angel investors that will be working with it. For now, though, the principals are mum on the topic. It has been reported that NEA shares a Boston-based entrepreneur-in-residence, Andrew McCollum (an early Facebook employee), with Flybridge Capital Partners. But Flybridge says it is not involved with the Experiment Fund.

Other local VCs and angel investors I talked to agreed that another seed program in Boston is a good thing for startups and entrepreneurship. They cautioned, however, that any new fund needs to be transparent about where its money comes from; it needs to show entrepreneurs it is committed to long-term funding and mentoring; and it should play the political game of associating with specific universities very carefully.

On the last point, the Experiment Fund is playing up its Harvard connection as a major strength. “NEA and Harvard share, in many respects, a mission to attract really talented people who want to make a difference in the world,” Chung says. No other fund is located on the campus of Harvard with access to its storied faculty, resources, and network, he says.

I asked the principals what has changed about the Boston and Harvard entrepreneurial communities in the past few years. For most of Harvard’s history, Chung says, the school has encouraged finding solutions to major world problems through academic research, medical advances, and political efforts (running for office, say). “Now part of that solution set can be to start a business or start an organization,” he says.

“There has been a groundswell of students interested in changing the world through startups and through technology,” Van Vuuren adds. “The Experiment Fund is here to be helpful. It is here to be a strong part of the ecosystem. Whatever your idea, wherever you are from, no matter your school, we want to hear from you. Because someone in this zip code will change the Internet, transform biotechnology and health, and help innovate us out of the global energy crises.”

So what should we expect to see in the coming year or two? “We want to start small,” Van Vuuren says. “We want to start in Harvard Square, and we want to work up and down the Red Line [subway]. We think 02138 and 02139 are the zip codes that will change America the most in the next few years.”

“The Experiment Fund is itself an experiment,” Chung adds. “We want to be the premier seed-stage fund in the area.”

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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