On a recent Wednesday evening, four floors above Mt. Auburn Street in what is known as the “i-space,” a group of five Harvard students had claimed one small, stuffy office room to discuss the impending launch of their startup. Laptops open, bullet points scrawled on a whiteboard opposite a Rosie the Riveter poster, the group shifted easily between brainstorming and casual jokes.
“We need to think about the timeline,” said Brandon G. Gerberich ’14, regarding the April 11 launch of Padibility, a roommate matching and housing referral service that has so far garnered 138 “likes” on Facebook. “Quick manual feedback is going to be very tough.” Gerberich is technically the team’s chief data science officer, but in a small team, anyone can and does chime in.
“How GIF-based do we want the survey to be?” Timothy S. Hopper ’14 asked.
“We have to make sure we’re getting important info,” countered Angie Peng ’14.
“They could be a reflection of personality,” said Naji A. Filali ’14. “Conflict resolution, personal values.”
“Right,” Hopper said, speculatively: “If they like the same kind of GIF they might be the same kind of person.”
All the group’s members are currently enrolled in ES95r: “Startup R & D,” taught by lecturer Paul B. Bottino, who is also the executive director of Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Students interested in the course must form a team, present their project, and respond to questions, before being selected for an intensive, field-based class meant to assist in developing ideas and planning implementation.
“Taking Paul Bottino’s class is just huge,” said Yohei Oka ’14. This year, Oka, Paul Koullick ’14, and Eduardo Lopez Beeche ’14 founded OFORO, an organization that works with healthcare non-profit Partners in Health to donate one condom in Malawi for each condom sold. “You get to spend all the time you’d normally spend in a class working on your ideas.”
ES95r is just one example of an increasing number of courses, spaces, and resources for students interested in entrepreneurship at Harvard. David A. Edwards teaches ES20: “How to Create Things & Have Them Matter,” while Business School professors Mihir A. Desai and David L. Ager taught the second iteration of a popular United States in the World class, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: American Experience in Comparative Perspective” last fall. The TECH space in the Square takes its place next to the Harvard Innovation Lab, or i-Lab, across the Charles River, founded in November 2011. And multiple University-based challenges offer competition and funding to select startups, including the i3 challenge that dispensed $50,000 in funding to finalists last week. Why the recent upsurge in interest? “Partially because of Mark Zuckerberg,” Oka speculated, “and these big, shiny, new deals.”
“Everyone and his grandmother is working on some sort of startup,” wrote Jacob R. Drucker ’15 in a Crimson op-ed last week. But students, increasingly, are finding that they can pursue fame and fortune, or at least a cool idea, without having to follow the Facebook founder in dropping out of school. And Harvard, increasingly, seems invested in keeping them here.
"If you were a student wanting to do this, it was under the cover of darkness," lecturer Paul B. Bottino says. "In a relatively short time, we went from renegade to regulated to resourced."
That’s not to say that it’s easy. Brooke K. Nowakowski ’16 and John M.A. McCallum ’16, whose sprayable batter concept, Spray Cake, was one of the $10,000 winners at the i3 challenge finals held at the Charles Hotel last Thursday, admit that juggling schoolwork and college life with starting a business and contacting sponsors has been a challenge. “Businesses are usually operating on nine-to-five hours,” said Nowakowski, “so you’re making calls in between lecture and section or lab—you’re scrambling sometimes.” But the project itself was firmly based at Harvard from the start. The duo developed their project in Paul Bottino’s ES95r class, while the idea initially arose from taking the popular Gen Ed course SPU 27: “Science and Cooking.”
“You get so much great feedback,” said Nowakowski of ES95r, “and you really plug into a group of entrepreneurs who are staying in school.”
Students in the course note that the projects can take on the status of a full-time job—Filali recalled one classmate filling out his daily work chart with sleep, an hour of swimming, and startup development, with a few spare hours for class penciled in.
“You have those kids who spend 24/7 on their startup,” said Peng. But for others, it’s a matter of priority. Sam R. Peinado ’15, together with Sarah L. Gondela ’13, created HuePick, a device shaped like a toothpick that instantly detects allergens in food, and another winner of the i3 challenge.
“My full-time job is to be a student,” said Peinado. Having been accepted to ES95r this semester, Peinado chose to take another course instead, while working with HuePick on the side. That said, he admitted “I am also taking a class pass-fail, so that I’ll have more time to work on the company.”
Unlike Stanford or Penn, Harvard does not offer directly pre-professional concentrations like business or marketing. But with the gradual introduction of courses in entrepreneurship or that employ business school-style case studies, the boundary between the liberal arts and the professions has slowly started to blur. Harvard’s growing support for rather than suspicion of entrepreneurship on campus can probably be traced to the turn of the 21st century: what Bottino calls “internet 1.0.” It was in 2000 that Bottino founded TECH, encouraged by then-Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, who had worked at the famed AT&T Bell Laboratories. Before then, since at least the 1930s, the Harvard Student Handbook had forbidden students from operating businesses on campus. Then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 initiated the change of language to permit businesses to operate after undergoing a review committee process. Several years later, the handbook was again rewritten to remove that regulatory function. Today, it reads:
Harvard permits undergraduates to undertake modest levels of business activities on campus. Students may be required to move businesses entirely off-campus should they disrupt residential life, compromise the educational environment, or jeopardize the nonprofit status of the University or any exemption of its income or property from federal, state or local taxation.
“I like to say that, before 2000, it was the renegade era,” said Bottino, taking a break from preparing for the announcement of the i3 challenge finalists, on the second-floor ballroom of the Charles. “If you were a student wanting to do this, it was under the cover of darkness.”
“In a relatively short time,” he went on, “we went from renegade to regulated to resourced.”
Bottino, whose thick gray hair belies a youthful countenance and earnest gaze, is convinced that the resources offered by Harvard make dropping out or taking a leave of absence often unnecessary and relatively rare. “So many of the teams are in this early development stage,” he said. “So many of them are geared toward college audiences. There’s definitely an advantage to being amongst talented people, being amongst people that can help you either with product development or their potential market segment.”
Many founders of recent startups at Harvard would agree. “We’ve met with tutors in our Houses who have phenomenon expertise that we’ve been able to benefit from,” said Hopper, a member of the Padibility team. “Once you’re out on your own, you’d be paying these people $150 an hour for their time, but because they’re your tutors, they’re willing to meet with you.”
For some, Harvard’s support has continued past graduation. As of this year, the Innovation Lab in Allston hosts three Dean’s Challenges in Cultural Entrepreneurship, Health and Life Sciences, and Design, in addition to the President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship. With hundreds of thousands of dollars to be dispensed, the challenges have the potential to transform a startup from a class project into a full-fledged business. All four, according to the i-Lab website, are open only to teams that include at least one matriculated, degree-seeking Harvard student (or a postdoctoral fellow or clinical fellow). While others can be involved, the Harvard student or students must be substantive members of the team—and prize money can only be awarded to Harvard students.
These qualifications were ideal for Six Foods, a startup that creates edible insect recipes to promote health and sustainability. Founded by college roommates Rose Wang ’13-’14 and Laura E. D’Asaro ’13, in addition to Meryl F. Natow ’13, the project was accepted into the i-Lab’s Venture Incubation Program last fall, and was able to become a finalist for the Dean’s challenge in Design because Wang, having taken a semester off, did not graduate until December.
Wang and D’Asaro are effusive in their enthusiasm for the project. “There are all these resources, there are workshops, they give you access to legal advice, business advice,” said D’Asaro. Long interested in entrepreneurship, D’Asaro had found upon arriving to campus almost four years ago that, other than Harvard Student Agencies, there wasn’t much available in which to get involved. “When the i-Lab opened, that was an absolute game-changer,” she said.
The Lab’s sleek, all-white offices, with inspirational quotes and ideas scribbled onto erasable-board columns, do seem more out of a trendy West Coast tech company than part of Harvard’s campus. Teams of students from the College and across the University gather at different brainstorming tables or in glass-walled offices, while some take breaks to avail themselves of the free coffee and fully stocked pantry of snacks, candy, and Ramen in the center of the space.
For some students, startups and startup culture offer an alternative to what they see as impersonal, low-impact careers in the corporate world. Wang, for example, had spent summers working for Abercrombie and Fitch and Microsoft before deciding to focus on Six Foods. “I had been looking for an opportunity to make a big impact on an organization as well as be a key decision maker,” she said, “and that doesn’t really happen in a corporate environment.”
“At Abercrombie I really struggled with the values of the company,” Wang added. “Ever since then, I’ve been searching for something I can put my time into that I think is really valuable.”
The “innovation” buzzword is important, as well. “I feel like a lot of CS, applied math people want to do something that’s not banking or consulting or going to a big IT company,” said Oka, one of the OFORO founders. “I guess that’s why people study CS in the first place: they’re interested in technology, and building something from nothing—from zero— is exciting.”
Of course, according to one recent estimate from Harvard Business School lecturer Shikhar Ghosh, three out of four startups fail. The image of the overnight billionaire who founded the next viral iPhone app, while seemingly attainable to students whose dorm rooms bear the shadows of coding gods Zuckerberg and Gates, is often no more than a mirage. But for students who are wary of leaving college and no longer having a voice, such immediate impact and results can be attractive. And for those who choose to stay in school, for whom the projects can remain a side venture, the risk-reward analysis can be even more favorable.
In an April 2012 story in The New Yorker, staff writer Ken Auletta traced the increasingly intimate relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Auletta argued that the connections, in many ways, prompted greater innovation among students and professionals. But, he added, “Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture has also turned it into a place where many faculty and students have a gold-rush mentality and where the distinction between faculty and student may blur as, together, they seek both invention and fortune.”
In some ways, Harvard seems eager to catch up with its peers. “We’ve got all the right ingredients for a startup culture,” said Bottino. The explosion of spaces and resources in the past five to ten years would seem to suggest that administrators, if not keen to nudge the university toward pre-professional avenues, are at least wary of being left behind.
But in other ways, many of those involved with “startup culture” on campus are eager to distance themselves from the monetized, pre-professional attitude of Silicon Valley. “I’ve looked at this whole experience as a learning experience,” said Peinado. For him, Harvard’s embrace of entrepreneurship reflects this kind of understanding. “It’s not just trying to get a job after college,” he said, “it’s also that I want to get an experience in this space.... The college does value—and it should value—that process of bringing something to fruition.”
Peng, too, distinguished her experience from that of other schools. At Stanford, she said, everyone wants to found a startup, “but then it becomes something you have to just check off.” Harvard students, she said, are more likely to pursue a project because they truly believe in it, rather than because it’s a fad. But, she suggested, this is changing. “[Harvard startup culture] is becoming more and more buzz-y,” Peng said, particularly in certain spheres: “You just can’t avoid it if you’re doing CS at Harvard.”
The Padibility team was clear to identify itself as a far-from-typical startup group. If it were not for ES95r and the i-space it’s unclear whether they’d be launching a company at all. OFORO similarly stemmed not from a burning idea that its founders were eager to put into action, but an interest in entrepreneurship and a desire to work on a project: “We just wanted to do something together,” said Oka. Rather than creating the “next big thing,” the emphasis, at least ideally, seems to be more on the process of creation and development than on a company in which professors would want to invest.
In some ways, then, Harvard’s support of innovation and entrepreneurship seems to be doing less to cultivate the undiscovered Zuckerbergs of the world—the students who probably would drop out anyway—and more to encourage startup culture in places it didn’t necessarily exist before. Some winners of the i3 and Dean’s challenges have gone on to become successful businesses; others have faded into obscurity, willing or unwilling casualties to be trampled under the swiftly churning cogs of tech.
But the possibility that the next big idea is being hatched, on 67 Mt. Auburn Street or 125 Western Ave. or on the second floor of the Charles Hotel, is enough of a thrill to keep the operation going, at least for now. And in some ways, the questions being asked are not so different than those being asked in the Barker Center or in Sever Hall. “What Harvard has taught us is to be thoughtful about the process,” said Wang. “How do we make our argument relevant? What does it mean to make impact?”
Added D’Asaro, “Why do we do the things we do? And if it doesn’t make sense, why not change it?”