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    Tom Keane

    At Harvard, a concerted effort to foster student innovation

    Merrill Lutsky and Erik Schluntz, both 19, start their sophomore years at Harvard this Tuesday. There’s the usual stuff — moving into dorms, registering for classes, seeing friends absent for the summer and, oh yes, running their business.

    Lutsky is chief executive officer and Schluntz is chief financial officer (at their age, my title was “paperboy”) of a company they created, PollVaultr. It’s the real deal, not a lemonade stand for late teens but an ambitious effort to transform the way that businesses interact with their customers. PollVaultr has already received $60,000 in start-up financing and is now looking for another round.

    And it started as freshman year class project.


    The idea grew out of an observation: customer surveys are long, tedious affairs. As a result, few are answered and because of that they don’t tell businesses much. The insight Lutsky and Schluntz had was much the same one Larry Page and Sergey Brin had when they created Google: Make it simple and easy.

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    And so it is. With PollVaultr, customers take the survey as they check out, rather than answering it later online. The survey contains only four questions, cleanly laid out on a touchscreen. Answering takes 15 seconds and five touches of the screen (one being the “submit” button). It’s fun to do and, because it’s anonymous, no one feels it’s a mere subterfuge to collect personal data (unlike, say, Facebook). The four questions in turn are drawn from a larger pool of questions, and, since participation rates are high, the results start to become statistically meaningful. It’s already up and operating in 13 locations around Cambridge (including the MIT Coop and BerryLine yogurt stores), and plans are to test it in 50 Subway shop locations this fall. One can see PollVaultr catching on everywhere. Riches await!

    Or, as with most start-ups, perhaps not. What’s remarkable about PollVaultr is not the idea itself (although I think it a good one), but the circumstances that gave rise to it.

    Certainly other college kids have created their own businesses, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s founders, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. In one sense, Lutsky and Schluntz are their progeny. But things are different this time around. Where Zuckerberg left Harvard to pursue his dream, Lutsky and Schluntz follow theirs with its help.

    Lutsky and Schluntz came up with their idea at a computer science class. They then participated in a Harvard competition called the Innovation Challenge (or I3, for “imagine — invent — impact”). Now in its fifth year, I3 pairs up students who mentor each other to develop their thoughts into something more tangible. Last school year, 78 teams of students participated; 25 made it to the semifinals, and six — including PollVaultr — received awards. From there, the two set up shop at the Harvard Innovation Labs, a 30,000-square-foot university-sponsored facility that is part incubator and part tutorial. “We try to help students apply the ideas they are learning in the classroom,” says its director, Gordon Jones. And it’s not only PollVaultr; the Innovation Labs houses around 160 student startups. Meanwhile, Lutsky and Schluntz are thinking they may take off spring semester to further grow their business. Far from earning them a disapproving lecture from a dean, that plan is being encouraged.


    As it should be. Perhaps our most creative periods as humans occur as young adults. That’s when we have just enough knowledge to understand what’s going on, but not too much experience to fear making a change.

    “On the other hand, Ray Kroc was 52 when he first started building McDonalds, so perhaps the real point is — whatever one’s age — that the circumstances that give rise to invention require a culture that encourages creativity and risk-taking. This seems to be something both political parties — embroiled in a foolish debate over “I built this business” — misunderstand. Decent infrastructure (good roads and the like) is, of course, a necessary prerequisite for a healthy economy. On the other hand, the country with the best roads in the world (Germany, or perhaps Japan) doesn’t have the greatest innovation. In thinking about how to foster a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy, Republicans and Democrats could both learn from the experiences of some young Harvard students.

    Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.