In the minds of many, the venerable Harvard is too storied an institution to have a verb as frivolous as “scramble” applied to any of its actions. But according to Chris Vogel, writing in Boston Magazine, that is exactly what the university is doing with its recent opening of a $20 million complex to house its new Innovation Lab. The I-Lab is the school’s “scramble” to catch up in an area where it has fallen perilously behind institutions like Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology: tech entrepreneurship.
Tech entrepreneurship is the new sexy. It’s what legions of promising teens and twentysomethings are crazy for today, and Harvard wants in on the action. Sure, the university can claim two of the great tech entrepreneurs of the age, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, as its own. But they had to drop out of Harvard in order to transform their world-changing ideas into reality. “Zuckerberg did Facebook over our dead body,” says Joe Lassiter, the faculty chair of the I-Lab. “The commitment to [entrepreneurship] at this level, and across the university, is quite a new thought.”
Despite the rhetoric that touted the I-Lab as a revolutionary development during the ceremony marking its opening, at this point in time, Harvard finds itself in an unfamiliar position: about a quarter of a century behind its cross-town neighbor and unchallenged tech entrepreneurship leader, MIT. Even the very heart of the effort to finally get in the game could be looked on as derivative. The I-Lab strongly resembles MIT’s Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, which opened its doors in 1990. This sincerest form of flattery is obvious even to Harvard alums like Bill Aulet, who is the managing director of the Trust Center.
Indeed it is. Everybody’s suddenly sweet on MIT. This past July, speaking in Boston at the Global Business Travel Association, Bill Clinton described the university as having the “best technology-transfer program in the country,” tops at turning student ideas into blockbuster businesses. It’s hard to disagree. Between 2000 and 2006, MIT graduates started more than 5,800 companies, and the numbers have only been rising since. The Institute produces more patent applications than any other single university in the world, with 179 in 2011. MIT’s entrepreneurial impact is so great that, according to a 2009 study conducted by the founder of the Trust Center, active companies created by its alumni bring in a combined revenue today of as much as $2 trillion. That would make those companies the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world.
What MIT has managed to achieve would stun its founders, who envisioned the institution as a training ground for professionals for the industrial age back when the school was created over 150 years ago. Instead, it has fashioned itself as an incubator of some of the most innovative digital ideas in the world. In the words of Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, this kind of total transformation of a university from a leading institution in one industry to a pioneer in a completely different industry is unprecedented in the history of American higher education.
If Harvard wants to overtake MIT as the “incubator of the digital age” it has more going against it than just MIT’s 25-year head start. Even the atmosphere in the new lab doesn’t feel right, according to those who have now worked in both. A place that is supposed to foster creativity shouldn’t shut its doors at 1am daily, and force students to sign in and out when they use it, as the I-Lab does. The Tech Center is open at all hours, not willing to let students lose out if inspiration strikes in the middle of the night.