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Harvard Innovation Lab Officially Opens in Allston

By Matthew M. Beck and Nathalie R. Miraval, Crimson Staff Writers

After almost a year of planning, negotiating, and remodeling, the Harvard Innovation Lab—a $20 million project designed to foster entrepreneurship in the Harvard and Boston community—officially opened its doors Friday afternoon.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Gordon S. Jones, the i-lab’s director. “It feels like that hectic period of six months of anticipation leading up to my child’s first day of school.”

With the snip of a red ribbon the i-lab was literally ready for business, opening its doors so that local businesses, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and University affiliates can discuss and realize their plans.

The opening ceremony packed the i-lab with University students and affiliates and local community members sporting business suits and conversing about the entrepreneurial possibilities the new facility could bring.

“I think it’s gorgeous,” said Daniel A. Koh ’07, a graduate of Harvard Business School. “It incorporates the feel of a typical entrepreneurial environment with Harvard’s special touch.”

The i-lab sits on the first floor of Batten Hall on 125 Western Ave. and is equipped with a coffee shop and a 24/7 public meeting space. Local artwork hangs from the walls and ceiling, pillars double as white boards, and bright orange chairs swivel to create what Jones called a “flexible space.”

“Great ideas and great thinking don’t always happen at a desk,” Jones said. “They can happen in unconventional places because your mind starts to think in more unconventional ways.”

While the facility is designed to provide resources for start-ups, it is also a start-up of sorts itself.

The i-lab is the first realized step in a series of measures the University is taking to develop a technological hub in Allston, similar to MIT’s Kendall Square.

Though the i-lab is the first part of this plan to come to fruition, it is not the centerpiece of Harvard’s plan.

Harvard broke ground on the Allston Science Complex in 2009, a project with an estimated $1 billion price tag that was meant to be a crown jewel of Harvard’s interdisciplinary science facilities. But due to financial constraints, University President Drew G. Faust halted construction on the site.

Since then, many Allston residents have said they are skeptical about the University’s plans for expansion in the neighborhood and have expressed a myriad of concerns about the i-lab’s place in the community. In past Harvard Allston Task Force meetings, some residents have said that they are worried that they will not enjoy the same access to the facility as Harvard affiliates.

But according to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the i-lab is a place where University members can work together with residents to create “new relations with Allston neighbors.”

In her welcoming speech during the ceremony, Faust explained that beyond serving as a place where the “fruits of innovation” can be cultivated, the i-lab is where her vision of “one University” comes alive.

“We are gathering great minds under a single roof so they can become greater together,” Faust said.

Faust added that when Facebook founder and Harvard dropout Mark E. Zuckerberg visited campus two weeks ago, he specifically requested a tour of the i-lab and told Faust that had the facility existed when he was an undergraduate, he would have spent many hours there.

This past week University students were able to participate in a preview of the i-lab through its “Start-up Weekend Scramble”—an event that paired undergraduate and graduate students with mentors and tasked them with creating a start-up in one weekend. Monica S. Liu ’12 said she used the event to receive advice from mentors and pitch her start-up Townhall 140, a virtual platform that connects users with leaders on political issues.

“The i-lab is incredibly exciting, there’s a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that makes you feel welcome and really fosters creativity and collaboration,” Liu said.  “We couldn’t have built our product and pushed our alpha launch through in 48 hours without the i-lab team’s help.”

Jones explained that future business workshops will be provided by local organizations such as the Small Business Administration, Service Corps of Retired Executives, Center for Women & Enterprise, and the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network.

“At the i-lab, we start with community,” Jones said. “One of our primary goals is helping small businesses take their ideas further.”

—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck can be reached at mbeck@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at nmiraval@college.harvard.edu.

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