Innovation Hub

A Tour Of Harvard's Innovation Lab

By Kara Miller

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We talk a lot on this show about the pieces you need to turn ideas into reality: The money, the space, the opportunities to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs.

Harvar'ds Innobation Lab is located in the old WGBH building in Allston. (Courtesy Harvard)

Now, we take a tour through a place where all of those ingredients are mixing together: The brand-new Harvard Innovation Lab, just down the street from our studios at Harvard’s life-science complex in Allston.

This is part of Harvard’s big push to nurture an entrepreneurial community. It’s where students and graduate students can take courses, find mentors, have office, conference and staging space to work on their companies, compete for start-up money… and have the chance to work together while doing it.

"Most extraordinary innovations occur at the intersections of things," said Dean Nitin Nohria, of Harvard Business School. "I think at Harvard, we have these amazingly bright people all across the University."

"We have amazing scientists, we have amazing undergraduates, people at the business school who understand whether something's going to be an important business model or not. What I think the I-Lab is going to be is a place that creates these connections between people where together they will discover things that they could not have discovered by themselves," said Noria.

 

The day it opened, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino was excited about how the I-Lab could fit into his vision for Boston's start-up scene -- including the Innovation District in Boston his administration has spent time and money developing.

"Just look at what’s going to happen in this building, the ideas, the concepts. I think this is a really exciting day for Allston, for the entrepreneurs across the city of Boston," said Mr. Menino. "The guys over in Cambridge will need a passport to get in here, but we’ll let 'em in!"

Two Harvard graduates, Tuan Ho and Nicholas Krasney, have been with the I-Lab since the beginning. They built a product called Tivli that delivers cable TV to Harvard students -- and may soon be headed for bigger things -- and were invited to join early on, as the Lab was taking shape.

"We came in last September to help test out the space, test out the programming and also just figure out, how should we be working in here," Ho said. They had brainstorming sessions about the design of the space, "and the word that kept getting dropped was Google. Google, Google, Google versus Facebook."

"I think the design philosophy's embodies in the fact that everything's on wheels and you can write on all the walls," Krasney said.

When Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, visited the I-Lab, he said the design did look a bit like his company. And he spent a little bit of time with Ho and Krasney -- and said he liked their product.

"He told us it was pretty cool and was impressed with the traction we've gotten here at Harvard," Krasney said.

"We were telling him that just last night, a quarter of the campus tuned in, and he darted his eyes at us, like, 'Really?'" said Ho, with a laugh.

Elsewhere in the Lab, Viennie Chanthachack was showing off his company's product, Bon App, which he billed as a "nutritionist in your pocket."

"It helps you develop healthier eating habits by allowing you to track what you're eating every day," Chanthachack said. A user enters each food they eat into the app, and they can see how it impacts their diet. 

Take a banana, for example. "You can see how many calories the banana adds to your diet, how much sugar, how much salt, how much 'yuck fat,'" explained Chanthachack.

Scott Crouch, an engineer studying computer science and engineer, said the I-Lab is helping he and his team better develop Rover, a company that builds Web and phone apps.

"Before the I-Lab, Harvard's entrepreneurs were really segregated, there wasn't much collaboration, but now we're all here working together in groups, the ability to bounce ideas off each other has been phenomenal," Crouch said. "One example is with Tivli, we work late nights and sometimes we'll bounce a feature off them, we'll bounce a design for a user interface off them and we'll get some great feedbacks.

Crouch's team, which has expanded from 2 to 19 people in two years, is grateful for the space they have at I-Lab. "One of the things we really like to do with our products is usability labs, you know, getting people in from the public and seeing if our products make sense, are they easy to use," Crouch said. "And the I-Lab has really facilitated that."

A note: The Innovation Lab is an underwriter for Innovation Hub.

Jess Bidgood produced this story.



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About Innovation Hub

Each week, Kara Miller talks to Boston's most innovative thinkers, examining new ideas and potential solutions to today’s many challenges. Topics range from education to health care to green energy. Join us on Saturdays at 7 a.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m.

About the Host
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

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