While Harvard’s most well-known innovative (dropout) student was at the center of media frenzy last week, the university is already thinking about the next crop of Zuckerbergs. Harvard is hoping to nurture the culture of innovation in campus through a new innovation lab (i-lab), aiming to foster team-based and entrepreneurial activities and deepen interactions among Harvard students, faculty and entrepreneurs.
The new i-lab is supposed to help Harvard to enhance its innovative activity and innovative reputation. Just think of green businesses as an example – how many of them were created by Harvard alumni? I could think of two – Opower (Daniel Yates) and RelayRides (Shelby Clark). I’m sure there are many more I’m missing, but let’s admit it – when talking about innovation and universities, you think about Stanford or MIT, not Harvard. Now, the i-lab hopes to change this perception.
The i-lab is operating in a building that once housed by local TV studios in Allston, MA, nearby the Harvard Business School (HBS). According to Harvard Magazine, HBS has provided the funding for renovating and staffing the lab (about $20 million), which has roughly 30,000 square feet of space. It has been designed to provide its users an entrepreneurial feel with exposed ceilings, ventilation, bare concrete floors, surfaces coated with white-board paint to accommodate free-form recording of ideas, a kitchen stocked with goodies and an adjoining large-screen TV with an Xbox Kinect game controller.
Basically it’s a place where “people can try out their ideas and see if they are worth putting to use,” Prof. Joseph Lassiter, who is faculty chair of the lab, explains. HBS dean Nitin Nohria added before the ribbon cutting ceremony last November that the facility is embodying “a wonderful spirit of ‘Why not?’ and ‘How about?’”
These visions are translated into a variety of activities in the i-lab that are mostly focused on utilizing Harvard’s most valuable resource – human capital, especially in terms of interaction and making the right human resources available. A great example of the combination of these two could be seen an ideabomb event that took place last November at the i-lab with over 100 Harvard students from nine different schools, from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine to the Graduate School of Design.
The first part of the evening was a brainstorming group session with the students splitting into 12 groups, based on industry preference, including consumer goods, education, healthcare, clean tech, low-cost technology and entertainment and media. For an hour the groups discussed trends, unmet needs and potential solutions, generating some interesting ideas such as a consignment store on wheels, or a platform that would be capable of sharing students’ data in real-time with parents who don’t want to wait for bi-monthly report cards.
After the ideas were presented to the audience, participants had the opportunity to talk with Harvard alumni currently working in the venture capital field. VCs from Highland Capital, Bain Capital Ventures (and no, Mitt Romney wasn’t there to offer advice) and Spark Capital were there, among others, offering insider advice, helping teams build on their ideas.
Innovative Harvard students are offered help in many ways, such as assistance from experts in residence for refining their ideas, opportunities to find team members for their start-up, workshops that will help them think through the first steps, classes in innovation and even a mentor. The idea is to make the i-lab the home base for this students with great ideas, where they can interact with peers and experts, maximizing the chance that great businesses will come out of these ideas.
Students seem to be happy with the i–lab and the opportunities it provides. Scott Crouch, an engineer studying computer science and engineer, told WGBH Innovation Hub the i-lab is helping he and his team better develop Rover, a company that builds Web and phone apps. “Before the I-Lab, Harvard’s entrepreneurs were really segregated, there wasn’t much collaboration, but now we’re all here working together in groups, the ability to bounce ideas off each other has been phenomenal,” Crouch said. ”
Will we see green innovations coming of the i-lab? I believe the answer is yes. Although the i-lab has not specific focus on sustainability, my guestimation is that sustainability will be part of their innovative agenda, especially with regards to social entrepreneurship as they would like to become the east coast equivalent of Stanford’s innovation hub, that brought to the world social enterprises such as Embrace and d.light. You can already see that they approach social entrepreneurship from the lab’s list of events: the calendar shows a debate next Monday on the question if business is essential to effectively deliver public services to the poor or a legal workshop for social entrepreneurs on March1st.
It is going to be interesting to watch the green business space in couple of years and check for alumni of the i-lab. The creators of i-lab certainly believes the right creative space, a lot of coffee, mentorship and interaction between very smart students, faculty and entrepreneurs can eventually make a difference, making Harvard synonymous with innovation. We’ll have to see if they got it right.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.