One year in, the three secrets to Harvard i-lab’s success


In today’s Globe, D.C. Denison has a great profile of Harvard’s i-lab, and he goes into a bit of what makes the university’s incubator successful a year into its existence.


Denison follows the story of Vaxess Technologies, a start-up that drew its founders from Harvard’s business school, the Kennedy School of Government, the law school, and Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology.

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“There’s no way the four of us would have met if we didn’t meet here,” cofounder Patrick Ho told Denison.

Expect a lot more of that mixing to occur as i-lab ramps up: In its first year alone, the i-lab had 14,000 student visits and spawned 131 teams, and it also encourages alumni to make use of the space.

That’s a lot of potential for spontaneous connections, and the lab has been designed to encourage that kind of chance encounter.


It does that by encouraging movement: The lab itself, Denison writes, is in a state of flux.

“I’ve always viewed this as a start-up,” Gordon Jones, the i-lab’s managing director, told Denison.

But beyond the metaphysical, the space itself, in true start-up style, is built to expand, collapse, and rearrange as need: Tables, whiteboards, and even team lockers, Denison notes, are all mounted on wheels, ready to create an impromptu office when the next big idea — or willing investor — comes knocking.

Expect that momentum to continue as the lab sets its sights higher: The i-lab plans to expand from a focus on the lower-hanging fruit of consumer apps to meatier subjects like life sciences.


With all those first-time entrepreneurs, there’s a lot of learning to do — both for the innovative start-up founders, as well as the university which is learning how to run an incubator as it goes along.

i-lab connects young entrepreneurs with both faculty and outside mentors, and a number of participants have found the cache of Harvard beats out typical start-up venues.

“This is also a good place to meet prospective investors” Ho told Denison. “It has a lot more credibility than a Starbucks.”