Campus & Community

Where creativity rules

6 min read

I-lab teams are gradually moving their creations toward the marketplace

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.”

An overview of the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) shows Phil Strazzulla from busy at work on his platform, which helps millennials navigate challenging life events.
Motivational messages and staying physically energized are helpful tools when you work on the computer all day. Haitao Yu (left) works on Agora, an online town hall, while Phil Strazzulla takes his 2:30 p.m. push-up break.
Jessica Yarmosky ’14 (left) and Taylor Percival ’14 work on CommonLit, a project that provides middle school students and teachers with open access to high-quality short texts.
Joe Adelmann, a 2013 Harvard Kennedy School graduate (center), leads a morning meeting with the team from Censio, a usage-based insurance platform that enables auto insurers to reward customers who drive safely.
Ergonomics are an important part of the scene at the i-lab, with bouncing balls abounding.
Jordyn Fahey (from left), Tatiana Fontalvo, and Charlene Lee ’14 frame Scott Benner’s artwork for display in a Newbury Street shop. They are part of ArtLifting, an online marketplace that showcases artwork by men and women who are homeless, disadvantaged, or disabled.
Maxwell Campion (center) works on BriefMe, a news app that shows users what the world is reading now.
Innovation Lab alumni Dmitry Kozachenok, M.B.A. ’13 (left), and James Webb chat in the refreshment area. While they finished at the lab in 2013, they say it is not a coincidence that they based Cryoocyte, their company that cryopreserves fish eggs for the fish-farming industry, in Allston; they enjoying coming to the lab to get reenergized.
Harvard Business School students Daniel Vogel (left) and Rahil Gupta work together on OctopusFX, which connects the world’s banking institutions via cryptocurrencies.
Elsa Sze speaks about Agora, an online town hall that offers local communities a smarter way to engage. By connecting verified users directly to decision-makers, the company “makes democracies more interactive, accessible, and inclusive.”
Logan Campbell speaks about his company, YouFly, which helps make unmanned aerial vehicles more accessible to consumers and business. He takes his UAV out for a spin in the field outside the i-lab.
HBS Professors Srikant Datar and Rajiv Lal teach the class “Design Thinking and Innovation” in Batten Hall. Nadira Lalji and Kelvin Lam, of Harvard Business School, and Jerilyn Teo, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, work together on an assignment.
Scott King (from left), Turi McKinley, and Jon Freach from Frog Design speak to the class. Frog Design is among the top design firms that collaborate with Professor Srikant Datar during the semester.
Graduate students, like Harvard Business School’s Adam Flick, and Harvard School of Public Health’s Lakshmi Karra, cross-register from across the University to learn about design thinking.
Harvard Business School student Jillian Ressler (center) makes a point during a discussion.
Students organize their ideas on Post-its covered boards.
Ten startups give presentations during Venture Incubation Program Demo Day. Iain MacLeod and David Raiser present for Aldatu Biosciences, a company improving HIV patient care worldwide with better, faster, and cheaper diagnostic tools.
Rami Lachter presents for Villy, a company that offers personalized recommendations for hotels based on advanced algorithms and local expertise.
Rose Wang (left) and Laura D’Asaro rap about Six Foods, which makes healthy food from insects.
A welcoming view of the i-lab in Allston.