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opinion | Mike Ross

Harvard’s startup lab targets millennials

The Harvard Innovation Lab opened in November 2011.(Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/file/Boston Globe

The Harvard Innovation Lab came too late to keep Facebook from moving to Palo Alto. But today it sits on the edge of the Harvard Business School in Allston waiting to snare the next Zuckerberg. Since being launched in 2011, it’s still waiting.

So far, the two most promising startups to come out of the i-lab are Handybook (now Handy), which books house cleanings as easily as Uber does a taxi, and Plastiq, which enables credit card payments for items once unavailable, such as college tuition and utilities.

A new startup led by a Yale and Harvard pair is hoping to be the next success story. To do so, they’ll need to take on popular culture. BriefMe is a news aggregator that feeds constantly changing headlines from hundreds of sources from around the world into an easy-to-use app. It models itself like most social media platforms that seek to capitalize on that dopamine rush people get every frenetic check of their phone. Its success, however, will depend on whether millennials will choose to digest the news of the world, instead of entertainment stories about Justin Bieber.


Where do millennials get their news? A recent report says that 71 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds get their news online, and are the largest consumers of news from Facebook and online video. Given that much of the “news” on social media is paid advertising, this is concerning.

Popular news sites like BuzzFeed are better known for oddly fascinating headlines that draw you in, rather than their hard-hitting journalism. A recent perusal of BuzzFeed’s site found the number one trending article to be “17 Common Phrases You’ve Been Saying Wrong For Years.” This just isn’t news.

But will hard news attract younger readers? England’s Financial Times might be a favorite of Wall Street and international currency traders, but it’s a safe assumption that very few of the pink-hued newspapers are tucked into the bike racks of young American urbanites.

Max Campion, cofounder and CEO of BriefMe, begs to differ. He claims the app is “100 percent created for millennials.” Among the curated news sources that flow through the app are established traditional news sources such as The Times of India, The Economist, and the Financial Times. Not exactly light reading. Deliberate choices are being made to capture the mainstream over Main Street. The Miami Times yes, but The Tampa Tribune no. The Washington Post yes, but The Washington Times no. The Boston Globe is in, but BriefMe is still deciding whether to include the Herald. Campion tells me the BriefMe team was careful to include entertainment favorites, including BuzzFeed, but still, it’s the news of the world that is the main course, the obscure is a side dish.


Perhaps the most interesting feature, and one that does not seem to exist elsewhere, is something that will appeal to all ages. The “feed” compiles every new article among all sources as it’s released. So, for example, when a mega-event occurs somewhere in the world, updates from hundreds of sources unfold in real-time, in one location.

As with all social media-based apps, BriefMe’s most valuable resource will be to provide information that comes from its users, rather than the other way around. News sources will be able to learn what attracts a click, and what doesn’t.

And if enough of those clicks add up, it will mean that Harvard has found another successful technology company. This time, it’s one we can keep.

Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.