Continuing a major shift in Harvard policy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) officials confirmed last week that they are assembling a program to teach undergraduates about high-tech entrepreneurship and help students start their own businesses while still in school.
The program--modeled along the lines of the Institute of Politics--will likely bring speakers to the University and help students get venture capital funding for business start-ups.
Administrators say the current project, which will be operated by the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS), will position the College to actively encourage entrepreneurship, in contrast to current College policy which forbids students from operating businesses from their dorm-room.
Three weeks ago, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 proposed amending the policy to allow moderate use of College resources--including dorm rooms, telephones and Internet connections--for business purposes.
While Lewis, emphasized several weeks ago that the change was only "permissive," and would not actively encourage students to run businesses, the new proposed center would do just that.
Administrators say they hope the project will help Harvard surpass schools such as Stanford that have had programs helping student entrepreneurs in place for decades.
The incipient program does not yet have an official name, though one possibility is the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH).
The idea for the center was first proposed by David Alpert '99-'00, who brought the idea to its current champion, Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti.
Narayanamurti said TECH would offer students a range of possible involvement in the high-tech world, and would cater to undergraduates from a variety of concentrations--not just computer science.
Alpert said possible TECH offerings include a high-tech lab for students to develop ideas for commercial products; a program to provide start-up capital, office space, and alumni mentorship to student entrepreneurs and a program to attract prominent speakers in the high-tech world to the center.
Narayanamurti said that, above all, he wants to make sure that students are able to pursue their interests at Harvard. Narayanamurti noted that when Bill Gates was an undergraduate, he dropped out of school to build Microsoft.
"If [students] do start a company, we want them to know its a nurturing thing," he said. "We're proud of it. Previously, we never really acknowledged our entrepreneurs."
Been There, Done That
Stanford's Mayfield program--which has consistently drawn national media attention as a symbol of student entrepreneurship--has paired a select group of students with mentors at technology companies for the past five years.
And Tina L. Seelig, assistant director of the Stanford Tech Ventures Program, said Stanford's emphasis on entrepreneurship extends far beyond that.
"The spirit of entrepreneurship permeates the university," she said. "The energy is palpable when you walk down the hall. It's so exciting."
The Stanford Office of Technology Licensing, she said, has been advising Stanford students and professors about marketing their ideas for decades.
Although he says the aims for far more than following in Stanford's footsteps, Narayamurti agrees that Harvard has some catching up to do.
"Stanford has a culture where they encourage the high-tech students. That's new for Harvard," he said. "In some ways, obviously, Harvard's had some very entrepreneurial students over the years, but on the other hand, emphasizing technology and entrepreneurship is not one the things Harvard did. As an institution or a division, we did not nurture it the way Stanford did."
Stanford has done well by their entrepreneurial spirit. Seelig said donors, to say nothing of students, are attracted to the university's close association with technology start-ups.
"Stanford is very aware of the possible relationships with these companies," she said. "A venture capital company [called the Mayfield fund] underwrites the Mayfield program."
Liberal Arts and Sciences
"As conceived in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, a liberal education was, to a considerable degree, the antithesis of a professional education," he said. "There is now much more career preparation at the undergraduate level--whether it is pre-med courses or the like."
But while Harvard has, for a long time, prepared students for their professional lives after graduation, TECH will be the first Harvard program that prepares students for a professional life at school.
Narayanamurti, straddling this divide, is emphasizing that TECH is a liberal arts educational venture even though it focuses on high-tech business.
"Students must learn entrepreneurship under the wing of a broad-based education," he said, and he hopes that TECH will provide just that.
It would be foolish and counter-productive, he said, to ignore the reality that today's students will have to know about the high-tech world.
"Times have changed. We really do live now in a very different world than in the past," he said. "Information technologies have a tremendous influences on our lives, and we need to exploit that for education."
At Stanford, Seelig agrees that some sense of how a business works is essential for those interested in technology, regardless of whether that knowledge fits within the rubric of the liberal arts education.
"Our engineers are going to play many roles. We're very aware that they're going to do anything from running a company to selling products. They need to know about the business world," she said. "They want to have this knowledge, and the vocabulary, because that's the vocabulary of our time."
The DEAS is already beginning to incorporate business education into its classes.
In "Computer Science 144: Service Oriented Computing," students learn about subjects including how to transmit telephone conversations over the Internet. Several Business School professors give guest lectures in the class, to teach student about the business side of technology ventures.
"Fundamentally, new technologies take money to develop. Whatever new things we do, we need to find people who are willing to pay for it," said Gates Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering H.T. Kung, who teaches the course.
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