The Harvard i-Lab enables the Next Generation of Innovation

I-Lab Opening Day Ribbon Cutting 2 by Derek Shi (HBS 2012)
I-Lab Opening Day Ribbon Cutting (President Faust and Mayor Menino). Photo by Derek Shi (HBS 2012)

Scribbled across one of the whiteboard columns in the previous home of the WGBH-TV are the words once spoken by Ken Olsen, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation — “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” These words as well as many other well-known erroneous predictions are written throughout the walls of the new Harvard Innovation Lab, dubbed the i-Lab, by students who hope to develop the next generation of innovation.

The official opening of the i-Lab attracted hundreds from campus and the community; even Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg had to take a peak during his short visit to campus earlier this month.

When Harvard University President Drew Faust mentioned Harvard’s plans to create a lab “designed to foster team-based and entrepreneurial activities,” Zuckerberg was so intrigued by the idea that he altered his schedule to make a surprise stop to the i-Lab. During the impromptu tour guided by Faust, Zuckerberg echoed the need for such a space during his time as a student.

At the beginning of 2011, the idea to construct a working environment for entrepreneurs on Harvard’s campus was only a concept.  However its creation quickly came to fruition in less than five months, says Faust. Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Faust welcomed undergraduates, graduates, and community members to Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. The 30,000 square-foot lab, located on the first floor of Batten Hall has been refashioned into a cluster of classrooms, work and social space, and a community lobby.

“Our history reminds us that the gap between the possible and impossible, the gap between imagination and implantation has been spanned before, and it will be spanned again,” said Faust. “The Harvard Innovation Lab is itself a bridge spanning those divides, a bridge constructed with those gaps in mind, a bridge that is defined and distinguished by a desire to draw together aspiring and established innovators from across the university and from beyond the university as well.”

In January 2012, 36 students and leaders will have the opportunity to participate in a field-based immersion in Silicon Valley. The field-based immersion will include company visits, case studies, panel discussions, small-group mentoring, and networking in the tech industry, with a primary focus in the consumer Internet sector.  In addition, the i-Lab provides three core areas of learning: for-credit courses, expert resources and experiential events. A few of the credit courses offered are taught by faculty from the Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Kennedy School.

I-Lab Ceiling Art by Derek Shi (HBS 2012)
I-Lab Ceiling Art by Joshua Sarantitis assisted by Greta McLain. Photo by Derek Shi (HBS 2012)

“It’s meant to bring people in and to increase the chance of unexpected encounters and the chance for that very special spark where an idea can be born and then transformed and then take on a life of its own,” said Faust.

The i-Lab is a student-centered, faculty-enabled space aimed at facilitating interactions between students, faculty, and the Boston community, a core concept supported by Menino’s administrative agenda.

“This is a really exciting day for the Allston Community. Boston is a place were big ideas are born. The i-Lab will play an essential role in impacting those ideas.  This is a great day, a great beginning, “ said Menino.

Boston was named the most innovative city in the world for the second year in a row, and in Menino’s inaugural address in January 2010 he also said, “it’s time to build on our early experiments, deliver on projects we’ve dreamed up, and make Boston a proving ground for dozens of novel solutions.”  Menino issued an open call to foundations, entrepreneurs, technologists, and neighbors to make Boston the hub of municipal innovation.

Innovations are well underway. Since September, students across Harvard campus have used the i-Lab resources to stir up new ideas and gather momentum to launch new business ideas in the coming year. Graduate student Levi Belnap, HBS Class of 2013, has been currently working on a startup venture aimed at decreasing the loss of knowledge that occurs with employee turnover or job transfer.  “This is my haven and favorite place on campus,” said Belnap. “This is an incubator for ideas. I spend all my free time here.”

Lei Guo, a Ph.D. student, has spent many hours in the i-Lab cultivating new relationships that can assist him and provide insight on an iPhone application called CocoVoice that allows users to save time by sending voice messages in a text-messaging fashion.

Founders of the i-Lab are Bridgett Bertram Evans and Bruce R Evans, both members of HBS Class of 1986. The i-Lab cost $20 million and was funded by more than 20 Harvard alumni spanning 35 years of graduates starting in 1971 and as recent 2006.