Harvard tries its hand at innovation on Boston side of the Charles
AFTER YEARS OF DELAYS and then years of planning, something big is starting to happen on the Boston side of the Harvard University campus. Out behind the stately Harvard Business School, across Western Avenue, is a big, sprawling space filled with gravel, dirt, and crumbling pavement. It’s not much to look at right now, but the potential is enormous. The folks at Harvard are laying plans to extend the Allston portion of the campus in the direction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and launch a new neighborhood featuring an enterprise research zone. There are no architectural drawings of the zone yet, but the plan is for Harvard to develop a funky neighborhood where companies and institutes can put down roots to take advantage of research going on at Harvard, MIT, Boston University, the Longwood Medical Area, and other area institutions.
Nithin Nohria, the dean of the Harvard Business School, attended MIT from 1984 to 1988. He says the empty stretch of land out the back door of the business school isn’t all that different from the vacant properties between Kendall Square and Lechmere back when he was working toward his doctorate in management. “Look at what it’s become today,” he says of Kendall Square. He’d like to see Harvard foster something similar, but with more green space, more retail, and more buildings on a human scale. “I’m hopeful we’ll get it right from the very first days,” he says.
Universities across the country are trying to create innovation zones, places where groundbreaking research or just clever ideas can be turned into startups. There’s no standard approach to innovation, but the policy experts at the Brookings Institution have spent a lot of time studying the phenomenon and concluded the recipe includes a mix of firms, research institutions, and organizations; a built environment that promotes connectivity and collaboration; and networking assets that bring it all together. Urban areas seem to be the blender where all these ingredients can be mixed together successfully.
Harvard didn’t start out looking to replicate Kendall Square in Allston. It bought land there stealthily, with the goal of expanding its campus southward. Then the Great Recession hit and even Harvard, with its massive endowment, pressed the pause button. The delay was embarrassing, but it gave Harvard officials time to think, and the more they thought about it, the more they wanted to move in a different direction. They looked down the street at Kendall Square and decided they wanted a piece of that action. But could they do it?
Gerald Autler, a senior program manager and planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, says it will be a challenge for Harvard. “MIT has always been much more actively engaged with the private sector than Harvard has been,” Autler says. “That model of encouraging spinoff activity, seeding the entrepreneurial ground around you, engaging very deliberately in attracting private enterprise that wants to locate near university researchers, that’s something that MIT has done very actively and very successfully. That’s not something that Harvard has done well, and really not even tried to do.”
Harvard began testing the waters in 2011 when it launched the Harvard Innovation Lab, a building next to the business school where students and faculty from across the university could get all sorts of help in launching a company. The response was so strong (80 companies, $250 million in venture capital funding) that Harvard expanded the concept in 2014 with the Launch Lab, which supports Harvard alumni startup ventures (40 companies so far). The Life Lab is coming this fall, targeting life sciences and biotech startups launched by members of the Harvard community.
Harvard later this year plans to begin construction on a massive new building to house the fast-growing School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which is currently scattered around the campus. That will be followed by a hotel and conference center, and then the big test, the enterprise zone. The name makes it sound like an industrial park, but Harvard officials talk about office buildings, residences, bike paths, restaurants, coffee shops, streets, and green space. Steven Fessler, an experienced real estate executive, has been hired to handle development of the area.
The real question is whether Harvard, a buttoned-down institution known for trying to control everything, can stand the chaos that innovation entails. Those who have studied innovation clusters say there is no guidebook, that Harvard is setting in motion a process it cannot control.
Harvard President Drew Faust says the university is ready. “We need to be nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities we would not have imagined perhaps even three months before they appear before us,” she says. “The enterprise research zone is really a way of reaching beyond the boundaries of the university to think about how our knowledge and our discoveries can connect with other organizations, be they companies, foundations, or other research units. It’s about attracting the kinds of synergistic partnerships that make us greater than we are and make us more than a university, that make us a force.”
NEW GEOGRAPHY OF INNOVATION
In 2010, then-Boston mayor Thomas Menino dubbed the South Boston waterfront the city’s Innovation District, and vowed to transform 1,000 acres into an urban environment that fosters innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship. District Hall, which calls itself a gathering space for Boston’s innovation community, was one of the more visible manifestations of the effort. Over time, however, the area has become less about startups and more about the expansion of Boston itself. Big law and consulting firms are moving into the area, which has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the city. The administration of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh doesn’t call the area the Innovation District anymore. There’s innovation going on there, but that’s no longer the primary focus.
What happened on the South Boston waterfront is good example of how innovation is difficult to create and channel. A powerful mayor can decree that innovation should take place in one part of the city, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen.
The Brookings Institution has done a lot of research on the new geography of innovation. The research suggests a shift away from innovation centers such as Silicon Valley in California and the Research Triangle in North Carolina, which are fairly isolated and accessible primarily by car. Increasingly, innovative firms are choosing to locate in urban areas where companies, institutions, and entrepreneurs can cluster together in a setting that combines housing, offices, retail, and transit.
“Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, startups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine,” says the 2014 Brookings report, “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America.”
Jennifer Vey, a fellow and codirector of the Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking at Brookings, who last year did a followup to the 2014 report, says a research-business-innovation ecosystem is spurred by creating an environment that promotes collaboration. “You want places where people want to be and feel comfortable,” she says. “These are not small issues.”
There are three general models for the new innovation districts, according to Brookings. One is called anchor-plus, which is the model for Kendall Square, where MIT and nearby institutions are the anchor for startup companies and related businesses. Brookings says innovation districts can also rise from “re-imagined urban areas,” places where low rents and proximity to a downtown can combine to attract research institutions and companies. Then there is the “urbanized science park,” which is basically converting a suburban office development into more of a self-contained community. Instead of commuting to and from the park each day, workers would live there. Research Triangle Park is trying to reinvent itself in this way.
Universities are leading the innovation effort across the country and the world. Some are doing it on their own campuses, while others are building satellite facilities in urban areas that have a better chance of providing the mix of assets that an innovation district needs. The best example may be the Cornell-Technion campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City, where the Ithaca, New York-based university and an Israeli institute are promoting technology transfer.
Vey says students and faculty increasingly want to see their ideas become businesses, and universities are recognizing they need to provide a supportive startup environment to keep attracting the best students and faculty. Vey says startups are a way for academic institutions to justify the federal and private research dollars they are receiving.
Frank Doyle, the dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says campuses are ideal startup incubators because there are many academic disciplines in close proximity to one another. Innovation may be something that can be taught, he says. “What are the fundamental skills that cut across multiple disciplines and lead to innovation?” he asks.
Vey says Harvard, with its land, resources, and access to a host of academic institutions, seems well-positioned to be a catalyst for an innovation district. “It sounds like a pretty smart play,” she says. “It sounds like all the right ingredients are there.”
Like many other academic institutions across the country, Harvard is trying to speed up the commercialization of research, Vey says. “Schools are trying to make that pivot,” she says. “These are big ships to turn, but when they do, people think the waves could be pretty enormous.”
ON PAPER, IT LOOKS SOLID
Katie Lapp, the executive vice president at Harvard, pushes a map across the table in the conference room down the hall from her office located just off Harvard Yard. The title of the map is “regional assets,” and there’s a circle on the left side of the map with Harvard’s proposed enterprise research zone in the center, and then concentric circles going out from there. One mile away is Central Square. Two miles away is Kendall Square in one direction and the Longwood Medical Area in another. Just under three miles away is Massachusetts General Hospital. Four miles away is the South Boston waterfront.
“I don’t think there’s too many places in the world where within a five-mile radius you have all that,” says Lapp, quickly adding that the area is a 10-minute ride to the airport, a 10-minute walk to Harvard Square, and one day may have a transit station offering access to the Greater Boston area.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” she says. “Our focus is on creating an ecosystem of innovation and dynamism. We want to connect to BU and MIT and to all the other institutions in the area, including the hospitals. This is what makes Boston an amazing place. We’re going to tap into that and support it.”
Fessler, Harvard’s head of enterprise real estate, doesn’t have drawings yet of what the enterprise research zone will look like, but he promises an “open, porous environment” with green space, bikeways, walkways, and buildings of different shapes and sizes. There won’t be any gates like those over in Harvard Yard, he says.
“What we’re creating here is a place where people want to live and work,” he says. Adds Lapp: “We don’t have a cookie cutter approach to this.”
The enterprise research zone represents about 36 acres of the 100 acres that Harvard owns between Western Avenue and the Massachusetts Turnpike. The area immediately behind Harvard Business School, dubbed Allston Landing North, will include the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a hotel and conference center, and the enterprise research zone. Plans for the Harvard land bordering the Turnpike, called Allston Landing South, are still being developed and could involve a reconfigurement of the Turnpike itself.
Sara Myerson, the director of planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, says Harvard is saying all the right things. She also says there is room for another Kendall Square. “The demand is certainly there. The demand is driving up rents and resulting in very low vacancies in Kendall. We have the demand side. We need to work on the supply side. We see this as being a huge opportunity, but it’s early days,” she says.
One of the biggest question marks is whether Harvard and its students and faculty have an entrepreneurial spirit. During some of the early discussions about the enterprise research zone among faculty and administration, that issue came up, says Lapp. She says Peter Tufano, who was then at the Harvard Business School and is now dean of the Said Business School at Oxford University in England, came up with the idea of testing the appetite for innovation on the Harvard campus. “He, too, challenged the perception that we weren’t innovative, that we weren’t displaying the type of activity that many people assign to our peer institutions but not to Harvard,” Lapp says.
Within a year, the Harvard Innovation Lab was launched on Western Avenue near the business school. “It’s been an unbelievable success,” Lapp says. “It tapped into something that we knew intuitively existed. We just created the place where you could go and see it. It was always happening in dorm rooms and elsewhere all the time. Look at Bill Gates. Look at Mark Zuckerberg.”
Talking to a group of Harvard students working on Innovation Lab startups reinforces the idea that there is pent-up entrepreneurial energy on campus. In brief interviews at a photo shoot for this story, the students talked excitedly about their fledgling business ideas. Jean Luo, a Harvard Business School student from Long Island, is working on Outdoor Pass, which markets curated outdoor activities to members. Miriam Huntley, who has a doctorate in applied math from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is working on DayZero Diagnostics, a company showing promise at speeding up the process of diagnosing bacterial infections. Raj Vista, a rising junior at Harvard from Ann Arbor, Michigan, won’t tell me what he’s working on; it’s confidential, he says. Rahkeem Morris, a Harvard Business School student from Albany, New York, says he is working on Atemp.today, which he describes as a web-based marketplace offering on-demand labor. Atemp’s website says the company will match workers and companies participating in the “informal economy;” the launch is this summer with the restaurant services industry as the first target market.
The students—all of them focused on their own startup projects—don’t have a lot of details about Harvard’s broader plans for an enterprise research zone. But they all eagerly attest that there is a lot of interest on the Harvard campus in technology transfer. Morris says he is convinced Harvard students can be major contributors to the innovation zone. As for Harvard’s ability to pull off such a project, Morris is equally confident. “Absolutely,” he says. “They have the money for it.”
BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS
Shortly after she took over as Harvard’s president in 2007, Drew Faust began to concentrate on what she saw as one of the university’s weaknesses. The school has top-notch graduate schools in law, business, education, medicine, and public health, but they were run like fiefdoms with little interaction among them.
“I felt we weren’t taking advantage of ourselves,” she says. “So from the time I became president I committed myself to trying to break down the barriers. Sometimes they were just barriers of ignorance. Sometimes they were administrative structures. Sometimes they were cultural assumptions. The goal was to really make Harvard more than its separate parts and to also meet the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of knowledge.” Faust even gave a name to the new philosophy she’s trying to imbue the university with: One Harvard.
Doyle, one year on the job as dean of the fast-growing School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says Faust’s One Harvard mantra has taken hold. He says all of the school deans are now Faust appointments and all of them have spent a lot of time breaking down barriers between the schools with joint research projects, co-teaching opportunities, and co-faculty appointments. “The vision of One Harvard has emerged in quite a powerful way,” he says.
Doyle says Harvard’s engineering program, which in the past was very academic-focused, is now stressing commercial applications. He says many companies are interested in working with students and faculty. Doyle and his soon-to-be campus neighbor, Nohria of the Harvard Business School, have developed a close working relationship.
Those sorts of relationships are a big deal because innovation is increasingly all about people from different disciplines talking to one another and approaching problems from different perspectives. Harvard has not been known for that.
Travis McCready, the CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, says, “the potential at Harvard is crazy,” but he’s not sure whether the university can pull it off. McCready has a unique perspective on Harvard’s bid to create an innovation district. Someone who follows research on innovation closely, McCready is the former executive director of the Kendall Square Association, which represents companies and institutions promoting the area, and the former director of community relations at Harvard.
“Part of what makes Kendall Square successful is that it starts with the mentality of MIT. They take tech transfer very seriously. It’s part of their DNA. It’s an institution built on the premise of getting technology into the private sector,” McCready says. “That is not Harvard’s genetic code. I don’t know if Harvard has that mentality. The missions of the two institutions are just different.”
McCready says Harvard can’t try to replicate Kendall Square on the Boston side of the Charles River. He says Harvard needs to pursue an innovation district that is a reflection of its own identity. He also says Harvard, which is known for micromanaging everything, has to set the stage for innovation and then get out of the way. “It won’t happen on a timetable,” he says of an innovation district. “It’s not a planned community. It evolves. It adapts and it does so fairly rapidly.”
McCready was concerned that the Innovation Lab was restricted to Harvard faculty and students. “Even in their attempt to spur innovation, they did it in a way that’s classic Harvard. It’s all for Harvard students,” he says. When it’s suggested that Harvard wanted to test the entrepreneurial appetite of Harvard students, he acknowledges that might be the case. But he says building an innovation district is not for control freaks. “You have to be willing to lose control,” he says.
Faust says she thinks Harvard can do that. “What we recognize is that you don’t plan innovation. You plan the conditions that can nurture innovation. We’re well aware of that. We’re also well aware of how fast everything is changing in the world right now. To give you a specific example, four years ago we recognized that we wanted to and needed to get into the digital education space. We wanted to do it in partnership with MIT. And so we founded edX and jumped in,” she says, referring to the online learning venture Harvard is part of.
HarvardX and edX are examples of Harvard not trying to control everything, Faust says. “We did not know where it was going,” she says. “People would ask us questions about X and Y and we could answer a lot of questions about our purposes, but we knew we were going to be in the middle of a river trying to adapt as the current changed and new developments emerged. Our experience in edX and HarvardX has been very much a matter of recognizing we weren’t in total control, but recognizing that we wanted to be in the mix and to see things unfold as a participant rather than as an observer.”
Click here to read an Editor’s Note about this story.