The early success of Harvard’s new Innovation Lab in Allston is gratifying to see — not just because promising medical, software, and education companies are already emerging from the so-called i-lab, but because of what the lab could mean to the future of Greater Boston and Harvard itself. Until recently, Harvard was slower than comparable universities to take on the role of a nurturer of start-ups. A successful i-lab should help turn Harvard — and Boston — into a more welcoming place for entrepreneurs .
As a recent Globe story noted, the year-old lab is humming: In a clear sign of the pent-up entrepreneurial energy that exists within the Harvard community, the lab hosts 65 businesses started by students and seven by alumni. By bringing together students and faculty from across the university, the lab has revealed the benefits of getting past the “every tub on its own bottom” approach that Harvard once took toward managing its disparate schools. A Harvard Law School graduate who co-founded a company called Vaxess told the Globe his colleagues came from the business school, the Kennedy School, and the chemistry department and never would have crossed paths without the i-lab.
If all had gone as originally planned, the i-lab might have been a sideshow to a much larger project: The $1 billion science center that Harvard began building in Allston in 2007. It was to be a global center for stem-cell research and other high-impact projects. Yet construction stalled in 2009, amid a global economic downturn and a decline in Harvard’s investment portfolio.
Announced in 2010, the i-lab initiative was a much-needed sign of forward momentum. It was seen in part as a way of placating nearby residents who worried that after Harvard had acquired vast areas of their neighborhood through legal subterfuges in the 1980s and ’90s, it would let them remain fallow for years. It also showed a recognition that Harvard needed to catch up with what other top universities — especially Stanford — have done to help their students and faculty launch new businesses.
But the project has taken on added importance as its popularity became evident, while the science center remained on hold. Construction on the latter project won’t resume until 2014, and it’s still unclear which of Harvard’s current departments can be coaxed into moving there. Yet the i-lab’s success may raise interest among Harvard’s engineering faculty in being closer to Harvard Business School. And it could also further a longer-term plan to enlist private developers in turning some of Harvard’s land in Allston into a smaller version of tech magnet Kendall Square.
The lab could also play a role in keeping new firms in the area. Helping aspiring entrepreneurs establish themselves in Massachusetts early on may increase the chance they’ll remain permanently. Greater Boston — and Harvard in particular — should be doing everything possible to help start-ups take root here. According to a recent study, nearly half of companies started by Harvard alumni are in California or New York; just 35 percent launched in Massachusetts. (The figures at MIT were more encouraging; 59 percent of its alumni companies are in Massachusetts. At Stanford, though, 85 percent of alumni companies are located in California.)
In retrospect, it’s clear that Harvard wasn’t offering adequate support to the would-be entrepreneurs in its midst. The mere existence of the i-lab now won’t keep the founders of future Facebooks from heading out west. But by giving entrepreneurs a route to success that begins in Allston, the project is pointing a way forward for them, for Harvard, and for the region.