Open Menu Close Menu


Campus Technology Insider Podcast April 2021

Listen: Supporting Entrepreneurship from a Distance: How Harvard's Innovation Labs Went Virtual

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, executive editor for Campus Technology, and your host.

When you picture a university innovation center, what comes to mind is usually a lot of hands-on collaboration and networking. There might be a makerspace involved, and surely a wall of post-it notes or whiteboard scribbles from a late-night brainstorming session. Basically all the things student entrepreneurs need to share ideas and work on that next startup venture. But what happens when that heavily in-person experience is forced to go virtual? For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Matt Segneri, executive director of the Harvard Innovation Labs, to find out about the past year's challenges and successes converting in-person student activities into virtual experiences that still capture that entrepreneurial vibe. Here's our chat.

Hi Matt, welcome to the podcast.

Matt Segneri: Hi Rhea, thanks so much for having me.

Kelly: So to start, I was hoping you could give a brief overview of the Harvard Innovation Labs and just sort of like, what is it and what goes on there?

Segneri: Absolutely. So we were founded in 2011 to support any student from any Harvard school at any point in their entrepreneurial journey. So what was an if you build it, will they come strategy, certainly almost a decade later has borne out. What was just one space for students in 2011 is now a thriving three lab ecosystem. So we have a student i-lab that supports hundreds of startups each year and a 30,000-square-foot facility with a number of different things within it that make it a thriving spot for innovation and entrepreneurship. The second is our Launch Lab X GEO, which is a nine-month accelerator to support seed-stage alumni-led startups. And then the third, which is in a separate building, is our Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab that serves high-potential life sciences ventures in a fully equipped wet lab facility. So what's really exciting about the i-lab, if you took a kind of look back today, in 2021, we've served 1,700 ventures, over 3,000 founders from 131 different countries. They've raised $3 billion plus in capital and had a huge impact on dozens of different industries and sectors. What's really unique and special about this university innovation center is the way it brings all 13 Harvard schools together to solve problems at the intersection of industries, disciplines and people and, you know, build this community that centers equity while taking none to make it a truly inclusive space for innovators.

Kelly: Wow. So, diving into the student side, what would a typical student experience be in the i-lab, and you know, talking pre-pandemic?

Segneri: So I'd say coming into this space, so it really is a, you know, if you think of a bustling active space, where you have folks from all across the Harvard campus and community from 13 different schools coming into, so you'd have hundreds of students coming through every day to do everything from, you know, work in earnest on their ventures, to attend a workshop, watch an evening panel, meet with each other in the kitchen and spend time, I mean, there are a number of folks who make the i-lab their second home. So they're here, you know, as close to 24-7 as you can be. They're tapping into our makerspace with 3d printers and other tools to prototype, a podcast video studio where they could do professional recordings, an AR/VR lab to beta test their applications, and a whole host of other, you know, pure meeting opportunities just to collaborate, meet new folks, talk to our experts and their mentors, and spend time in earnest, advancing their ideas and ventures.

Kelly: Yeah, when I think of innovation centers and entrepreneurship, it just is such an in-person experience. You know, with the in-person collaboration, I picture post-its on the wall and all that networking. So how did the pandemic impact your ability to provide that kind of experience to students?

Segneri: Yeah, so I would, first I would affirm your notion of innovation, entrepreneurship, and the one I had in my head. So I started here at the Harvard Innovation Labs on March 9 [2020], which was the day before the university went virtual. So the pre-existing sense I had of what the space would be was, you know, it's a spot where you wanted to be in the room where it happens, where you have, as you said, post-its, whiteboards, conference rooms, people gathering everywhere. And that certainly was a critical part of having a very in-person environment in context where, again, these sort of chance, we talk a lot about structured serendipities, so where you have chance meetings of folks from the business school, the college, the design school, from all over, you know, mixing and mingling with leaders in the Allston-Brighton community with, you know, experts from across Boston. Those lunches, informal events, that casual environment that happens in person obviously was a core part of what it was. But the exciting thing is that I would say our community has always transcended the physical space. And it used to be, you know, it was a lot about meeting us where we were before, being in this building, but what the pandemic has cracked open is the opportunity for us to meet people where they are, literally all over the world. And so that moved to the virtual environment, which I think we'll get to chat a little bit more about, has obviously changed the nature of what we've done, you know, we went from what was principally everything in person to principally everything virtual. You know, save for our Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab, which being deemed essential by the state, biopharma R&D was essential from the beginning of the pandemic, that part of our operations has been fully online through the duration of the pandemic. But in the student space, you know, we have really had to meet people where they are, and that is all over the world right now. Some folks still on campus, but mostly scattered across the globe.

Kelly: Yeah, so you really must have had to hit the ground running just starting when the pandemic hit. So how did you prioritize? What were the first things that you did to move some of those in-person activities online?

Segneri: Yes. So I would say, I mean, my fortunate inheritance here at the i-lab was, you know, two amazing things. One being team and the second being team. So our staff team here at the i-lab was really phenomenal. So I'd say we, you know, we were still just at the beginning of looking at how we build this virtual ecosystem. I mean, I always, when I look back to the beginning of the pandemic, I think folks thought, you know, it would be a week or a matter of weeks before we were back in. There wasn't really a sense of anticipation of how long we'd be running and deep into the pandemic. But we tried to, you know, think nimbly, to build some of that resilience to be able to pivot to doing a number of our, you know, beta programs over Zoom, shifting everything we could, as quickly as possible to meet our teams where they were. Now we have a really, you know, a community of entrepreneurs, as you can imagine, are a pretty dynamic, flexible and nimble group by personality and by nature. So, I think we were able to early days really orient around, you know, for me, also wanting to build meaningful relationships with our team here at the i-lab, and meet our students where we are because at heart, the mission of the i-lab is really about being in service to our students, so they can be in service to society. So when I think about going back to those first priorities in the early days, you know, I landed on a Monday, that first day, we had to start making decisions about our marquee event, the President's Innovation Challenge, which usually is a thousand people in person. I can talk more about where it went during the spring of 2020. But looking at all these things that were happening virtual, and saying, certainly health and safety is paramount in all of our considerations. But we wanted to build a plan quickly to be able to communicate to our teams, you know, what, how we were pivoting, how they could still stay meaningfully engaged to try and take as much of our programming, more of it virtual, but also supplement with folks who've been through, you know, prior crisis periods, whether it was the dot com bubble or the Great Recession, so that we were anchoring on folks who could support our teams through these really unprecedented times. And I think, cultivate that muscle. We knew very early on that we would need to continually iterate so that we were staying responsive and resilient to all the new challenges that came with us every day. But, you know, the last thing I'll say is that we, that President's Innovation Challenge event that was in May was, there was a huge amount of planning there in addition to our traditional planning for the spring venture program. But what's been remarkable since the, you know, the over a year of time has passed, we've actually worked with 1,000 unique ventures over this period. And each, you know, we run three cycles of programming, a summer venture program, a fall and a spring. And with each new cycle, we've significantly grown the number of teams. So innovation has been more important than ever, to our world, to our teams. And we, I think, have been pretty thoughtful and nimble in our response to meeting people where they are and helping scale our programming to meet the moment.

Kelly: You mentioned Zoom being really helpful. Were there any other particular technologies that were key to your move to virtual — you know, like what replaces the post-it notes?

Segneri: Yes, I mean, I'd say more technology than ever. So Zoom certainly has been the backbone of so many people's existence for the last year. That's been really important for our live workshops, for our team meetings, for one-to-one meetings between teams and their mentors and advisors. You know, we've leaned meaningfully on Slack for both staff collaboration and team collaboration. Tou can never fully replace the in-person context, but I think being able to respond nimbly, create groups within Slack so folks in like-minded industries or affinity groups can spend meaningful time with each other. But the, you know, the list is extensive. It's everything from, you know, technology tools we use to build a new unique content portal, so that our teams can access workshops and other content that's customized to them, to SlideRoom for applications, to WordPress for building out our microsite. You know, we also used a lot of new kind of team productivity tools, we built a, we worked in ClickUp to sort of manage process and tasks. You know, obviously, Microsoft Office suite of Office 365 and SharePoint. But I'd say what's critically important in this moment is a lot of the tools that I mentioned are standard tools with broad user bases. We also wanted to experiment with building no-code websites through Glide, looking at Miro boards, tapping into a whole host of new tools to pilot and experiment, so that as an innovation lab, we're understanding, you know, the best of what's around and piloting new tools and technologies, but also helping meet our teams where they are, and help connect with them on new platforms that help them advance what they're doing. I mean, so much of, you know, where we first started was thinking about what was available and what was ready, what within Harvard or within the Harvard Innovation Labs already had licenses and access. But again, it's sort of a healthy mix of tried and true tools and also experimental tools so that we could navigate these, you know, the unprecedented times we were in.

Kelly: Could you sort of give an example of how one of the virtual programs work? You mentioned the President's Innovation Challenge, maybe you could start there.

Segneri: Yes, that's great. So I'd say even our, the three cycles of venture programs that we run, sort of align with the academic year calendar of fall, spring and summer. So folks would apply to be part of that venture program. And it's open to all Harvard students as well as, you know, postdoctoral fellows, a handful of other categories of folks. They become part of that virtual venture program. And then there's a parallel Launch Lab X GEO program for students. And by being a part of that program, they have access to the programming and events, workshops and panel discussions, one on one advising and expert meetings, pitch events, alumni roundtables, mixers, pitch swaps, a whole host of things. For our more advanced teams, about 120 in the spring semester, they're also part of our President's Innovation Challenge. And that's a call to action for students and alumni to solve some of the world's most complex problems. We're deep in it right now, as I'm talking to you, about to host on, later this week, the announcement of our 25 finalists, so the five finalist teams across each of our five tracks. So these teams have been working in earnest throughout the year, and in some case over multiple years to advance their ideas in health and life sciences, in social impact, in b2b, consumer goods, a whole host of domains. What it ultimately will culminate in is on May 5, we'll have our, again this year virtual, finale ceremony where when we did this in person, it was a couple hundred people in our lobby or at most a thousand people and one of the largest on campus auditoriums. What was really exciting about the move to shifting to a virtual live stream event is that we had 4,000 attendees from 80 different countries around the world. And it was a way to crack open, you know, in a large scale way, the incredible innovation coming from our community to access an even broader group of people and shine a spotlight on some of the disruptive, innovative new companies and technologies and tools and services that they were building. So that, you know, what traditionally all happens in person, the judging, the ceremony and so forth, is a really exciting way to turn this into a collaborative event that's done differently and dynamically. And again, this was going back to my first day we had to decide, are we going forward with it or are we just going to shelve it for the academic year, knowing that in many cases these in person events were tabled. I'm really excited by what the team was able to do to build this into, you know, an exciting, best in class event last year that we're even growing and innovating on for this May.

Kelly: Yeah, you know, it kind of opens it up to a broader audience when you can do it virtually. I know I've appreciated being able to attend events and conferences that I would never, you know, have made it to in the past. So has the pandemic been a source of inspiration for students with the ideas of coming up with? I mean, you say solving the world's problems, and that's like, a pretty big one.

Segneri: I mean, I have to say, I'm genuinely impressed and so proud of how our students have risen to the moment. They, you know, they continue to make incredible progress on these ventures in a virtual world, which makes a lot of elements of venture creation that much more challenging. I think the, you know, the fuel to the fire of wanting to make a positive impact during the pandemic is certainly there. And, you know, obviously, what we've seen is, I think, folks working in this field, whether they're in, you know, higher ed, or in accelerators, or any different spaces, you know, I sort of think in three lanes: Some folks in ventures have been propelled, many have pivoted, and others have paused by virtue of what's happening. I've seen in our community, you know, a healthy amount of pivots too; people have looked at new customer bases, or new applications or new problems that they were deeply passionate about solving. In a lot of cases, it really has propelled the work forward of some of our teams. You know, I think amidst our student and alumni population, one example to call attention to, WHOOP, which was named Fast Company's most innovative wellness company of 2020. They're a wearables company and I actually have one of their straps on right now, that is measuring a lot of different sort of fitness and performance variables. What was fascinating about their story is that they, you know, had different athletes, including those on the PGA and LPGA Tour wearing their bands. And they found that based on the respiratory rates they were tracking, it actually was a mechanism for early detection of COVID. You know, that was rocket fuel for their company as they develop partnerships with a number of professional sports leagues, as they raise significant funding to be, you know, excitingly for us at the i-lab, one of our, one of two unicorns, companies that hit a billion dollars in valuation in 2020. The other being CarePort Health, which is a care coordination company. But two really exciting companies that were, yeah, I think had a lot of the fundamentals to succeed and thrive, but that in this moment of the pandemic, the work they were doing was more important than ever. So I think led to a lot of company success, and also a huge amount of job creation and support in the Boston community where both are based. And that's, you know, that's one example of many doing incredible work around the lines of you know, others, another student team, CaribEd, that's supporting educational materials for students who are working offline, you have others who are supporting online childbirth classes, COVID testing, you know, one of the first test kits here in Boston to support Beth Israel Hospital symptom checking for COVID. I mean, a lot is specifically in that COVID space, but it expands broadly in many different directions to see again, just the breadth and range of what a thousand different student teams have done over the last year within the Harvard Innovation Labs.

Kelly: Yeah, looking over the past year, could you share some of the challenges that you had to work through?

Segneri: Yeah this, I mean, you know, I'm a glass three-quarters full person for sure. But there, you know, there have been plentiful things to work through, which is also you know, in a place like an innovation lab, makes the work quite exciting. So when you take something like the PIC, our President's Innovation Challenge, definitely not a plug and play from an in-person auditorium context to a virtual live stream context, because we're working with teams to develop all their pitches and share them online, setting up a studio and set, building a new microsite and website, and these, you know, the exciting piece about this is it takes an entirely different skill set and the way that our staff team and the teams we work with have to flex their muscles. But it also is an amazing way, and I think for a lot of different elements of higher education that's fundamentally changed learning models, research teaching, and so that was a, you know, a big challenge to take. You know, literally it was my day one where we were just a couple months out from the event and had to completely change the playbook for how we do it. You know, more broadly to challenges it's, you know, one of the things you said earlier is, some things are just easier when you have a big, you know, 30,000-square-foot space where folks can mix and mingle. Creating some of that structured serendipity is easier in a lobby or in a classroom than it is in a virtual setting. But what we've learned a lot about — as you provide access to some of these new technology tools, it's not just sort of dropping in Slack in the middle of a, you know, our spring cohort right now is 426 teams. It's thinking in a deeply human way about how people will interact. How do we build these groups? How do we act responsibly? How do we connect them to one another? So you know, while certainly the challenges are plentiful, the opportunity to do things differently is exciting in places where, you know, there's a certain amount of rhythm and consistency to what happens in the academic year cycle, that's completely upended by what we're doing. So building that muscle and capacity to be nimble and flexible and dynamic is an important one. Some of the challenge also, which is a, you know, a positive challenge, is just the scale and growth that we've seen in our ecosystem, where, again, we've jumped by, you know, close to 50 percent in the number of teams that we're serving in a given semester. And so that's put, while some things are scalable in a virtual context, we also still want to be responsive and in service to our teams. So it's been a really demanding last 12 months for the staff team, and the amazing community of experts and mentors and judges and the volunteers that we draw on to support our student teams.

Kelly: And how about successes, so is there anything that just really worked particularly well?

Segneri: Yeah, I think that, I mean, meeting students where they are, I mean, in these, I always find them in communities like this one, you want to feel like you're, you know, the successes, feeling like you're still fully yourself, while being part of something bigger. I think what we were able to create for our teams was the issues and the problems they were passionate about, channeling that energy into building new ventures. And for us, it's a really big umbrella: folks who are creating new companies, launching new nonprofits, driving innovation in government, building movements, it's not just a sort of single organizational form. They're creating innovation in so many different ways. But I think the success of being able to meet this growing and broad and excited group of folks, to connect them into our programming through, you know, broad offerings that we know all of our teams will need as well as, you know, custom meetings with experts and residents from different schools that are specialized in the areas they care about, connecting them with mentors who can really be catalysts to their growth, launching the content portal to help support them on their personalized entrepreneurial journey, that I think meeting people where they are has been really important, but also creating that community which I give a ton of credit to our team in doing so that you know, one of my favorite events from the last year we have a, you know, a gong, actually two gongs in the i-lab space, that usually when we're in person, there's events where people ring them to celebrate important milestones or happenings in their venture, we converted that into a virtual forum. But it was still so exciting at the end of the fall semester, and we'll do it again this spring, for people to share and celebrate their accomplishments. We also in that moment, did paper plate awards where we sort of acknowledged and celebrate amongst the student community, the people who've been real leaders of building a thriving community for folks. So I think that, you know, the symbiosis between our team, the student team, bringing out the best in individual ventures to affect change, but also into a really thriving i-lab community is important. And again, I point also to that President's Innovation Challenge, because it was such a Herculean effort to pull that together, that became a model for what we're doing this year in a way that, you know, it serves as a backbone. It runs throughout the course of the academic year, culminates in a big event for, you know, a handful of folks who do win meaningful prize money in support for their ventures this year. It's $510k in prizes across the tracks, supported by prize money from the Bertarelli Foundation. But more than just the folks who win the prizes, I think a rigorous and supportive process that helps nudge people along in the work they're doing is really something to celebrate.

Kelly: Have you had any feedback from students, you know, what their experience has been like working virtually versus in person? What's the response been?

Segneri: Yeah, I mean, the feedback piece is, we are, we live in a culture of feedback where we're, after every session after interaction with our mentors, we're constantly seeking feedback so that we can continue to evolve and enhance our programming. Because again, at heart, we want to really be in service to students as they're building this. And so I'd say that the feedback has been largely positive on the ways that we, you know, lean into support, provide customized support, our operating and service to them. I think it's certainly, you know, the challenges that entrepreneurs face on, you know, raising capital, you know, you have to survive a lot of noes before you get to the yesses. I think they're, you know, they're making progress on their ventures. They're excited about the support here. In a broader context, though, it's certainly, you know, I'd be remiss not to note the strain that it's put on, you know, students in, you know, I have three young kids who are in school, so students in K to 12, in higher ed, it's fundamentally a different experience than, you know, going into a classroom every day, going into a dining hall, having late night conversations in the i-lab or in your dorm room. So it's a fundamentally altered experience. But the resiliency and adaptiveness of this group has really stood out to me, though, I'll, you know, I'd be the first to say we're all really excited to get back to some type of next normal come September.

Kelly: Yeah, well that was my next question. So if you're currently still virtual, is it looking like you'll return to in person in the fall?

Segneri: So the exciting thing about where the trend line seems to be going for the university. So the the college has announced that they're planning for return to normal come fall. And that's true of many of the graduate schools as well, meaning that sort of in person residency for students working towards in person and hybrid classrooms. So our hope is that, you know, density requirements, masks, a number of the safety precautions factored in, that we'll have a more active and thriving space come this fall, with the potential for pilot and experimentation during the summer as well.

Kelly: Have there been any elements of the virtual experience that you think are here to stay and that you actually want to carry over even once things are back in person?

Segneri: Well, I think actually, that's a that's a really important question. So much of, you know, what we did before, you had to be in the room where it happened. So it was a very physical, in person model. You know, the last year for most people has been slingshotting to the other side of the spectrum where almost everything is virtual. I think when we get back to this third state, which introduces more complexity in terms of, you know, you're not fully one or the other thing, but how do you bring together the best of both worlds? So in some ways, when I think about our expert community, many of whom were physically present when they'd hold office hours or do meetings with students, you know, what we've done in the last year is crack things open. So we have this incredible global community of experts, you know, we'd love to have them on some occasions be physically present, but the way in which we've globalized our work, I think it's something certainly here to stay and that's reflective of our student community, who, again, we've served folks from 131 different nationalities. I think this, you know, the crux of what I mean to say is, we still want a very rooted in place and being proximate to the Boston community we're a part of, and help that ecosystem thrive and grow. But, you know, at the same time, we're also a, you know, Boston is a foremost center of higher education in the world. And so as folks come here, we also want to set them up for success to build companies across the globe. And the more we globalize the experience while they're here, you know, take the best elements of being in person, but also leverage so much of what we learned about doing things differently over the last year, I think that's what's really going to make the Harvard Innovation Labs even more exciting in our second decade.

Kelly: Any final advice for other institutions navigating this virtual and in person student experience?

Segneri: Well, I'd always say this, I mean, we're, I feel fortunate for all of the, you know, all of the things we've made progress on at the Harvard Innovation Labs over the last year, but I've been, you know, so impressed with colleagues across Boston, across the country and the globe, who are running university innovation centers, accelerators, incubators doing this work. So it's always with a bit of humility that I offer advice because I know how much I have learned from and continue to learn from the work they're doing. The things I would just point to is, at the heart of what we're doing, what we're constantly trying to put at the center is focusing on our student teams' needs. So we want to be in service to them to help them be in service to society. And I think so much of, you know, as we continue to build and evolve our programming, it's being constantly close to them. I always talk about the, you know, the power of proximity is in these, you know, sort of dense innovation clusters where people mix and mingle and work closely together. But it's also about being really proximate to your customers, the folks we're serving. So I think that's one thing I'd say, is really understanding their needs. The second is anticipating their needs. I found that people don't always know what to ask for. And there's some things they don't yet know they need. Because we've seen a number of folks over the years, 3,000-plus founders on their journeys, it's trying to anticipate and sort of get at the next stage of their journey to help meet them where they are. And you know, the third and last one is really just about as we do this work, staying deeply rooted in the community. So we're, obviously our mandate is every, you know, any Harvard student, any Harvard school at any point in their journey, but also, so much of what we want is a, you know, a thriving Boston and greater Boston ecosystem. So being really closely connected to supporting the community around us so that these innovation centers don't just kind of solve for what's in the building, but really sort of break down those walls and crack it open. So that we're building a really great relationship with the community around us. And I know there's, you know, so many colleagues who are leading these types of efforts at other colleges and universities really have that squarely in their focus also.

Kelly: That seems like a good place to end it. So thank you so much for coming on.

Segneri: Thanks so much for having me. And thanks for all the great work you're doing to elevate and celebrate people leading in this space.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

comments powered by Disqus