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Harvard makes foray into start-up scene with i-lab

Eamonn McLain relaxed in front of a projection installation in the community lobby of Harvard University’s innovation lab in Allston. The lab opens today with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Boston Globe

A microphone dangles from the ceiling in Harvard University’s new innovation lab in Allston. It is not attached to a podium in the first-floor gathering space. There are, in fact, no attachments and no podiums: Almost every piece of furniture is on wheels.

Gordon Jones, lab director, grabbed the live microphone, which hangs over the future site of a small boxing ring, during a recent tour of the $20 million facility: “Round 1: Innovation lab opens,’’ he said, “Round 2?’’

Round 1 actually begins today, with the building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. As for what Round 2 will be, no one knows. The i-lab is a slightly risky experiment for Harvard, which is making both its first major foray into Allston and its first substantial attempt at becoming an incubator for start-ups.


The university is not well-known for nurturing fledgling companies. Harvard consists of 11 far-flung schools with a history of competing for resources rather than sharing them. It is also a place where curriculum review can turn into a drawn-out brawl.

The i-lab, housed in the old WGBH building on Western Avenue, aims to change that. It is not attached to any single Harvard school and will be open to students from all of them. If at some point it begins to doubt its own educational offerings, it will alter them, and quickly, Jones said.

“We ourselves are a start-up, so we have to be nimble and willing to change,’’ he said. “We have to practice what we preach.’’

Several projects are underway, including a publication called Urban Sophisticate (think GQ for the college set) and a company developing a questionnaire that will help emerging African banks assess financial bets.

In Allston, the neighborhood that will ultimately be the site of the biggest expansion in the university’s history, residents are watching the development closely. Much of its ground floor is accessible to all, and the center will offer public workshops on the practical skills needed to start and grow a small business. Harvard students and neighborhood residents will be encouraged to mingle and collaborate.


Phil Malone, a clinical professor of law at Harvard, was so taken with the building that he moved his class into it halfway through this semester.

“At first there were some issues with students finding it, but people seem to like it,’’ he said. “It’s truly cross-school - and that’s not something Harvard has ever done very well, since we tend to be siloed - and there’s just great energy around the place.’’

The exterior of the building is newly decked out with red signs and the interior has been renovated beyond recognition. The lobby and cafe are dotted with glass and metal art; pillars are coated in whiteboard paint for ease of doodling. A workshop off the lobby has power tools and a 3-D printer. There’s a basketball court out back.

“I feel a bit like I’m describing a resort,’’ Jones said. “I mean, a resort with a purpose.’’

The idea of a Harvard “resort’’ in the middle of Allston may, of course, rub some residents the wrong way.

Allston resident Harry Mattison, a longtime critic of Harvard’s development efforts, said he had been hoping the i-lab would be better integrated into the neighborhood.

“Harvard makes a big deal about the coffee shop inside the building and that the public can attend some lectures there, but really the building is an extension of Harvard’s peaceful Business School campus onto Western Ave.,’’ he said. “While I would be delighted to be proved wrong, I expect that the i-lab is really a Harvard place for Harvard people that will have little more than a thin veil of public access.’’


Though i-lab officials have been working with the Allston and Brighton boards of trade, they have not started a full-out marketing push to reach the neighborhoods’ less-connected residents. They plan to do so soon.

“One of the greatest values of the lab is that Harvard students and members of the community can connect with one another,’’ said Gabe Handel, a Harvard liaison to Allston. “The business community in Allston is very informed about this. We just need to find the appropriate channels to reach people who are not part of that group.’’

Jones also emphasized that the greatest risk for the i-lab would be failure to serve a broad set of people - from Harvard students to Allston residents to the start-up community at large.

At least one member of the last group has given the lab his approval. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook, dropped by to check out the building and get a preview of a company being developed there that will stream live TV over the Internet. He dubbed it “actually pretty cool.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.