The Obama administration is getting organized about innovation. Last Monday, the White House held a public-private sector press conference launching “Startup America,” a joint-venture between government leaders and leading corporations such as Google, IBM and Facebook to reignite a core value of American culture: innovation. This aligns with the State of the Union address in which Obama prioritized innovation as a way to create jobs, start companies and make America economically competitive again.
This new prioritization of innovation coincides with recent groundswell of activity at Harvard College. It seems that every computer science concentrator and their roommate has an exciting, new start-up. Yet, the action is not limited to Maxwell Dworkin. Jonah Varon ’13 and Axel Hansen ’13 created Newsle on their own time and got attention in TechCrunch. Jackson Kernion ’12 created On Topic@Harvard. Seth Riddley ’12 did not take any computer science classes to code HarvardLunch, a simple idea so profound that Yale and the Unniversity of Pennsylvania have asked him to set it up on their campuses. However great the bottom-up enthusiasm for innovation, there is a need for top-down support: greater resources, more mentorship, and most importantly (and symbolically), a Harvard hub. The energetic Harvard innovators often take the T to Kendall to find an outlet for their passions. A recent Flybridge Capital Cues & Brews Billiards event drew top Boston entrepreneurs to 1 Kendall Square, a huge, converted factory. Many Harvard alumni were there offering advice. One Facebook co-founder was also there, not playing pool, but planning to set up shop in Boston for his next venture.
That all of this activity occurred outside of Harvard demonstrates our lack of an suitable hub for Boston’s innovators. As a further sign of the fertile start-up culture in Cambridge, Microsoft established the New England Research and Development Center near Kendall Square in September 2007. The innovation culture is not limited to universities and corporations. A comparable public sector movement is in the works. In April 2010, leaders came together at 1 Marina Park Drive and organized MassChallenge, a competition that helps transform big ideas into businesses and draws Boston’s top group of investors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, corporate executives and government leaders. They’ve won sponsorship from the Massachusetts Governor, and even accolades from President Barack H. Obama.
Over the past six months, student-run initiatives like Hack Harvard, Harvard College Venture Partners, Quincy’s Q-Combinator, Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, TEDxHarvard, and others have reinvigorated the startup scene on campus. This energy follows in the footsteps of two technology “startups” that trace their roots back to the College and have dominated in two separate decades: Microsoft in the 90s, and Facebook in the last. Much of this renaissance was the result of the Hack Harvard incubation that lasted over one-week in unused Office of Career Services Interview Facility space. Computer Science 50 Professor David J. Malan ’99 has played a remarkable role in this new innovation ecosystem, establishing a Computer Science 50 lounge, even obtaining a HUDS kiosk for students to hack, and continually pushing the envelope with the administration. Malan, along with other energized faculty members, alumni, and OCS, have proven that the administration can support us in a big way.
Administrators and students often classify innovative technologies as they do the weather: uncontrollable, unpredictable. We often hear people ask who’ll be the next Mark Zuckerberg, as if the Harvard admissions committee invented Facebook. This misses the essence of innovation. Innovation is not about picking the next Zuckerberg, but rather fostering the type of community in which a Zuckerberg can thrive. Innovation, unlike the weather, can be encouraged; Harvard can make it rain.
The first step to harnessing the zeal of its undergraduates is to provide a proper environment. Many candidates in past Undergraduate Council elections have made it their campaign priority to create more social and collaborative spaces on campus. Imagine a social hub where top tech minds, those interested in business, passionate about social justice, curious about sustainable foods, or keen to invent a better way to plan parties, can get together and launch smart, successful ventures. In the spirit of Xerox PARC or Bell Labs, Harvard Business School recently launched the Harvard Innovation Lab being catered to graduate students. A similar facility should be created at the College. Here, experienced alumni can lend support and capital; marketing teams can have a home; students can serendipitously meet, trade ideas and lend skills. All of this can be done with or without the administration’s help. Obama has made his move. We ask students, professors, deans and administrators of the College: What is yours?
Christopher K. Lee ’13 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Adams House. Co-President of Harvard College Venture Partners and Teddy Himler ’11 is a government concentrator in Leverett House.
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