Opinion

opinion | Francis J. Doyle III and Nitin Nohria

Engineering, science, entrepreneurship, and Boston’s newest innovation district

Harvard Stadium, the oldest open-air stadium in the US, looked like a scene from the future on Saturday as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones) flew overhead while a commentator explained the finer points of flying. On the field, the world’s fastest terrestrial robot, the locally developed Cheetah, was on display.

The program featured Boston-area robotics startups and served to highlight how robots can assist with dangerous search-and-rescue missions, tedious agricultural tasks, and routine jobs such as aerial surveillance and maintenance of high-voltage power lines. Most importantly, the day helped to demystify UAV’s — and robotics more broadly — and gesture towards their commercial applications.

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The Making Robotics Fly event, which was followed by a forum featuring leaders from across the UAV ecosystem as part of HUBweek, was an example of what might come from collaboration between Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

Over the next several years, SEAS will expand from its current home in Cambridge into a new state-of-the-art facility on Western Avenue in Allston — just across the street from the HBS campus. The move will place Harvard engineers and scientists steps from its MBA students, and also from the university’s Innovation Lab, which has become a prime destination for Harvard entrepreneurs since it opened in 2011. The new SEAS campus will include an innovation accelerator and sit near an enterprise research zone where established technology companies and startups can claim space alongside health, science, and R&D labs. It sets the stage for other academic disciplines to join us in Allston in the future, joining a vibrant neighborhood that combines university, community, residential, commercial, and green space.

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Throughout history, many of the world’s best businesses have resulted from putting the right combination of creative people into close proximity. Indeed, venture capitalists have come to demand that a promising startup have just the right mix of technical and business talent, because startups that lack one or the other are unlikely to get far.

We’re convinced that bringing the communities of researchers and students at SEAS and HBS side-by-side will result in products, services, and social good ventures we can’t begin to imagine today — and give birth to a new generation of high-growth companies that will employ local residents, enrich investors, retain talented individuals in the region, and bring new innovations to consumers. Harbingers of just such a future have already begun to emerge out the Harvard Innovation Lab, where engineering and business students with big ideas have teamed up to produce an array of promising startups. Robotics firm Shield AI is creating robots that think, health care firm LuminOva aims to increase in vitro fertilization rates, big data firm DrivenData is helping nonprofits and public agencies operate more efficiently, and Voxel8 is revolutionizing 3-D printing technology to print electronic components.

When we imagine the possibilities of this emerging business-engineering nexus, we draw inspiration from a photo of Harvard Medical School around 1900, when it opened in the then-rural outskirts of Boston. In a move some critics decried as lunacy, the leaders of that institution decided to build a new campus in a then remote area of the Fens. Early photos show the original Medical School building surrounded by fields where cattle grazed.

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Within several decades, however, the Medical School attracted an influx of neighbors. Today, the area around Longwood Avenue is home to a host of other world-class medical institutions, and has become Boston’s medical hub — a center for employment, treatment, and research that has resulted in advances in a wide array of medical fields.

We expect the development of Allston as a center for science, engineering, and entrepreneurship to have a similar effect. Someday, the corridor surrounding Western Avenue will be a hotbed for emerging technology companies, ventures that will help Allston to connect with Cambridge and Longwood as a vibrant node in the region’s expanding innovation network.

(HUBweek was founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and The Boston Globe.)

Francis J. Doyle III is dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Nitin Nohria is dean of Harvard Business School.
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