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With new investment, Harvard plans to translate ‘tough tech’ into more startups

Harvard's Science and Engineering Complex in Allston.Harvard

A wearable device that monitors your weight-lifting performance. A faster way to do 3D printing. A cheaper method to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

These are all emerging technologies coming out of Harvard University that could lead to new startups in the next few years, as the school makes a deeper commitment to translating “tough tech” from its labs into companies.

Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences launched the “Harvard Grid” on Wednesday, an accelerator program designed to promote this type of entrepreneurship among students and faculty. The program will be housed in the school’s newly opened Science and Engineering Complex in Allston.


At the helm of the Grid is executive director Paul Hayre, who founded Boston-based Sano Diagnostics and spent the last decade in the medical device and health care fields. He said he wants to help Harvard’s physical science and engineering research impact society in a more meaningful way.

It’s one thing if a researcher can build a robot, and quite another if that robot can be deployed inside the human body to fix a heart valve, he said.

Sam Liss, executive director of strategic partnerships in Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, said the idea to focus on tough tech started in 2013, with the launch of an accelerator program for physical sciences and engineering companies. Sixteen startups have since emerged from the program, including Verve Motion, Soft Robotics, and RightHand Robotics, raising a combined $150 million.

With the Grid, Liss said Harvard is doubling its financial commitment to the accelerator. He declined to disclose how much Harvard is investing in the Grid but said the commitment will support the Grid’s initial five years.

The Grid plans to select three to five teams for the accelerator by February. Applications for the program will open next month.


Selected startups will have access to space inside the Science and Engineering Complex and more formal business education and mentorship. Hayre said the Grid will give startups “legs,” so they can go from receiving government funding to a stage that would attract venture capitalists.

“Launching a science-based startup,” Liss said, “is really quite different from launching a startup that might be based on social media.”

Tough-tech startups typically try to solve big problems in areas like climate change or hunger by achieving a scientific or engineering breakthrough. These companies often require a lot of capital and take several years to get to market, making them unattractive to most VC firms.

The Grid sits in a similar space as The Engine, a venture firm founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016. The goal is that these two organizations will have close ties, since the Grid will help Harvard projects reach the commercial launch stage, and The Engine invests in launched startups.

Katie Rae, The Engine’s chief executive, serves as a member of the project selection committee for The Grid’s accelerator. And Harvard invested in The Engine’s last $230 million fund-raiser.

Anissa Gardizy can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.