It is a safe, creative place for taking a risk, a place where student gumption meets the world’s problems, where idealistic solutions meet economic reality.
Harvard’s Innovation Lab (i-lab), just three years old, is designed to foster students’ entrepreneurial spirit. The students build teams — some 500 have come through the i-lab — incubate their ideas, and learn from experts who are eager to advise.
“The world is a scary place,” said Rose Wang, whose Six Foods venture is about to market its first product, Chirps snack chips. “What we really learned is there are a lot of great ideas, but it’s all about executing.”
The students bring energy and vision — and a dose of creative naïveté — as they struggle with business plans, prototypes, marketing, and financing. Some 90 to 100 teams use the i-lab’s workspace during any given semester, according to Neal Doyle, assistant director for operations.
Three teams working there last summer give a sense of the breadth of student vision, spanning sustainable eating, aerial drone technology, and a Web-based “town hall” to better connect citizens with their elected representatives:
Wang and partner Laura D’Asaro, both 2013 Harvard College graduates, want people to eat insects, which provide protein. Their first product, Chirps, a snack chip containing cricket flour, is about to go on sale. The two say eating insects is healthier for people, better for the environment, and already a practice in many places around the world.
Harvard Business School (HBS) student Logan Campbell says aerial drones are more useful than people realize. He’s designing his own models and starting a sales and service business, YouFly Inc. Campbell sees initial opportunities in aerial photography and videography and thinks agriculture — for which drones can provide views of crop health in remote fields — is another potentially ripe market.
HBS and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) alumna Elsa Sze and partners are working on Agora, an online town hall and Web-based forum to bring the public’s “missing voices” back into politics. Agora connects voters with local officials, allowing busy people who can’t attend town meetings to be heard. Agora will be tested in nearby communities.
Doyle said several ventures have successfully graduated from the i-lab, together raising more than $100 million in venture capital. To help these and other Harvard graduates, the i-lab opened a new facility, the Harvard Innovation Launch Lab, to help alumni startups with those difficult first steps.
“For a lot of students time spent at the i-lab is an extracurricular activity, and some we see here as much as they’d be at the gym or a club. For others, it’s a safe space to explore,” Doyle said. “Everything we do is free. There is no ‘ask’ of students other than being a good community member.”