If Google dropped a prefab pop-up on Harvard’s ivy-covered campus, it might look like the university’s new I-Lab. With minimalist white interiors, round-edged swivel chairs in cheery colors and movable desks surrounded by exercise balls and high-tech gadgets, the Harvard Innovation Lab sits adjacent to Harvard Business School’s red-brick buildings. But it looks like a satellite from Silicon Valley. And surrounded by whiteboards and beanbag chairs, Harvard professor Joseph Lassiter—the I-Lab’s inaugural faculty chair—is just as excited as the teenagers and twentysomethings working there.
Just a year and a half ago, soon after the I-Lab first opened, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had returned to the school for a visit and happened to walk in. Once inside, he said that he felt as if he were in California. After a nearby student tweeted his remark, waves of undergrads started flocking to the I-Lab in Batten Hall to take classes and brainstorm company ideas. The place looks like it was built in a rush—it was, in less than 20 months to be exact, which is slow for a start-up but warp speed for a 377-year-old Ivy League institution. But Harvard needed to do something, and fast. With the recession, the endowment was shrinking, and students were feeling the intellectual tug of innovation hubs like Stanford and Silicon Valley. “Since Silicon Valley isn’t going anywhere, we have to do extra things to make ourselves attractive to students and faculty,” Lassiter says.
With the I-Lab, he sought to create a physical place where students could not only learn but also put their ideas to use. It was meant to encourage cross-pollination across university departments as well, to help students discover how innovative thinking applies, yes, to technology but also to disciplines like medicine, law and the arts. Guest speaker Wynton Marsalis, for instance, came to the I-Lab last year to discuss why and how the jazz musician is also an entrepreneur.
Inside, all surfaces are stark white, and all furniture has wheels. Colored storage bins contrast with off-white office walls in some areas, students bounce on core balls and movable shelves stack atop gray carpeting like toys in a childproof playroom—the Silicon Valley look. Lassiter says all the tables roll because the ideas and teams change, “like quantum bubbles that just evaporate and need to recombine.” Scattered in small back rooms are 3-D printers and stacks of the latest software. In the back, a lineup of HBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, from Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup (Crown Business), to IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez, keeps occasional office hours to help new enterprises with user-interface design, counseling and finding venture capital. And while anyone can use the lobby, only Harvard undergrads, grad students, postdocs and faculty members—plus their non-Harvard business associates—can take classes at the I-Lab or use its work spaces.
Last year the center produced more than a dozen venture-backed companies (see “The Companies”), and after giving a tour of the I-Lab, Lassiter starts sounding more like a Silicon Valley founder than the Harvard Business School professor he has been for so long. “Fundamentally I-Lab’s purpose is to help people make the world a better place,” he says. With the escalating cost of college and the self-reported dissatisfaction of students (like the New York Law School students suing for false representation), educators are faced with the task of giving themselves a makeover. “We need to find a way to put ideas to use,” Lassiter says.
This very approach may be how the university saves itself. “The I-Lab strategy of innovation is critical to breaking down walls and building greater cooperation within the Harvard community,” says Martin Marshall professor of Management Practice in Business Administration and senior associate dean Robert Steven Kaplan. The United States’ universities have always been one of our key competencies, he says. Our infrastructure used to be part of that, too, but it has deteriorated. The secondary education system also used to be an advantage but is now a weakness. Kaplan, former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs and most recently the author of What You’re Really Meant to Do (Harvard Business Review Press), says universities need to do more to remain internationally unparalleled places of scientific research and innovation. “Within one university you have all the skills needed to solve critical problems facing the planet,” he says. At a time when digital learning is becoming increasingly important, higher education has to provide an experience, and a transformative experience at that. While still in its infancy, the I-Lab is already taking a leap in that direction.
Harvard I-Lab is in Batten Hall, 125 Western Ave., Allston, Massachusetts; ilab.harvard.edu.
Fact: When the center opened last year, Lassiter expected 500 people to visit and ultimately work there. It turned out 3,500 did.
While creating start-ups isn’t the I-Lab’s core mission, it’s already launched several promising enterprises since opening a year and a half ago. Here, a sampling of the most exciting ventures.
Founders: Harvard graduates Nick Krasney and Tuan Ho, in 2011.
Goal: The service live-streams basic- and premium- cable content to portable devices on college campuses via the university’s IP network. It’s already established early partnerships with brands like HBO.
Founders: Three students from the Business School, the Kennedy School and the Law School as well as a postdoc researcher in the Department of Chemistry, in 2011.
Goal: The technology increases access to vaccines worldwide through use of a silk protein that keeps injections stable enough to function in the hottest of climates.
Founder: Megan Marcus, a master’s candidate in education, policy and management, in 2012.
Goal: The nonprofit sees learning as the product of a successful teacher-student relationship and works to equip all educators with the social and emotional skills necessary to meaningfully connect with their pupils.
Founder: Kennedy School student Francisco Aguilar while pursuing his master’s in public policy, in 2012.
Goal: Through the Bounce Imaging Explorer (an orb-like camera that Aguilar developed in part at the I-Lab facilities), the company allows first responders a more effective way to evaluate disaster sites and locate victims. —Anthony Rotunno