i-Lab Initiatives: Moving Further, Faster

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By DANIEL UM

This spring semester, the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) received a record number of applicants, from over 450 startups, for its Venture Incubation Program (VIP) and President’s Innovation Challenge (PIC). This number of applications received was 200 more than expected by the i-lab staff and marked the first year that the VIP and PIC semifinalist applications were combined into one. The increased quantity of applications could have resulted from the new and enticing two-for-one application, the growing prestige of the competition, or simply due to the burgeoning entrepreneurship culture at Harvard.

With record-breaking application numbers, the task was difficult but on January 19, the i-lab staff advisors concluded the selection process for the Spring 2018 VIP and PIC semifinalists. Acceptance letters were released with information about team registration, the VIP orientation, information about staff advisors, and industry expert mentor-match. During the orientation, the i-lab’s managing director Chris Colbert led off the night by drawing an analogy between the journey of an entrepreneur and that of a mountaineer. He equated the i-lab staff advisors to Sherpas, peer VIP members to fellow mountaineers and the innovation roadblocks to blinding snowstorms. Following this, some of the i-lab staff advisors shared some VIP dos and don’ts. Peter Gladstone highlighted the importance of taking advantage of the i-lab community and the members from “all different schools and backgrounds”. Scott Overdyke advised teams to “spend time with costumers”, stating that team progress is directly “correlate[d] with how much time [teams] spend with customers”. Alice Ly warned against entrepreneurs “stay[ing] within [their] comfort zone”, sharing that, often, “tech and product are not alone sufficient” and talking to strangers is essential for a successful launch. Lastly, Director of Advising Howard Kaplan, urged teams to avoid “com[ing] to events without knowing what [they] will get out of it”; attending a few events with a focused goal is far more valuable than attending a slew of events without any direction.

The typical journey for an i-lab spring-term startup begins in September, when aspiring entrepreneurs seek advising sessions and attend workshops to refine their ideas, build a team or join an ongoing startup. In early November, interested innovators attend the President’s Innovation Challenge Open House to learn about the application process, the available resources and the expectations of the challenge. In mid-November, co-founders have the opportunity to present their projects during the Pitch & Match event to anyone looking to join a startup and potentially fill spots on their team. In early January, teams submit their applications to the PIC (and VIP) with confirmation of acceptance in late January. Then selected teams continue to incubate their ideas in the i-lab until early-March, when they submit their finalist application. Finalists are selected in late-March and after incubating for another two months, the finalists pitch their projects at the awards ceremony in the hopes of winning a portion of the $310,000 prize pool.   

Going into more depth on the details of the Venture Incubation Program (VIP), it is a 12-week program in which teams have access to weekly i-lab advisor coaching sessions, a specialized mentor-matching program, technical resources, industry specific roundtables, exclusive office hours with guest experts, dinners with visiting entrepreneurs, and a strong community of like-minded individuals and teams. The program is composed of three cycles: fall, spring and summer. The fall cycle is aimed at allowing teams to develop, refine and cultivate their projects in the resource-rich i-lab. Often, fall startups tend to be more in the early stages of development, but eventually they can be amply prepared to apply again to the VIP in the spring and compete in the PIC. The spring cycle of the VIP is more heavily geared towards accelerating projects and preparing teams to compete in the PIC. Because the i-lab advisors discovered that the VIP and PIC were very much intertwined for most i-lab startups, the two applications were merged. Lastly, the summer session is a 10-week program that demands a higher level of commitment. It is expected that team members dedicate their summers on their startups and exclusive workshop sessions are available to summer VIP participants only.

The culminating event is the President’s Challenge, which offers total of $310,000 in prize money to the winning teams in the three tracks of Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise, Health or Life Sciences, and Open competition. The prize money is broken down with $75,000 awarded to the winners from each track, $25,000 to the runner-ups and $10,000 to the ‘crowd favorite’. The goal of the competition is to foster a sense of collaborative acceleration; it’s a call to action for entrepreneurs from all 13 Harvard schools to bring their passion, projects or ideas into fruition, while helping their fellow innovators, or mountaineers, move “further faster” (i-lab’s slogan).

Daniel Um ([email protected]) can already envision a future composed of the i-Lab’s winners of the present