Harvard Innovation Lab Head, Gordon Jones, Talks Goals and Challenges in Creating the Newest Incubator in Town

He says he is “part entrepreneur, part educator…part ambassador, part politician.” Who is this masked man?

He’s Gordon Jones, the inaugural director of the Harvard Innovation Lab, and until last week many people in the startup community might not have known who he was. I’m just starting to get to know him, having talked with him on the phone from the West Coast (where he was earlier this week). So this isn’t going to be a rigorous analysis of his new job or anything, but let’s just say the man has his work cut out for him. Given all the twists and turns in what he calls his “custom-created career,” I’m betting he just might be up to the task.

The Harvard Innovation Lab is a new, $20 million center for entrepreneurship that is slated to open this fall. The 30,000-square-foot space, still under construction, is located where WGBH-TV’s studios used to be in Allston. The “i-lab” will house classrooms and meeting space for students, faculty, investors, and local businesses, as well as provide business development resources and develop new classes and programs focused on innovation. It will also operate as a nonprofit incubator of new companies. The broader goal, Jones says, is to encourage entrepreneurship and commercialization across all of Harvard’s various schools—arts and sciences, engineering and applied science, business, law, and government.

“The promise is to be a home for entrepreneurs at Harvard,” he says.

And the unstated goal? To keep the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Tony Hsieh—all Harvard undergrads at some point—from moving his or her company (Microsoft, Facebook, Zappos) out of Boston. Harvard thinks it’s found the man to lead the effort.

Jones, 42, is a former marketing and sales exec and an expert in consumer goods. He talks like every well-polished MBA you’ve ever known. But he brings real experience selling real stuff you can get your hands around—everything from Oral-B toothbrushes and newfangled dental floss, to window and glass scraper tools, to a “mosquito magnet” that uses propane and a catalytic converter to keep pests away. He has done time at Gillette, American Biophysics, and Universal Pest Solutions, and he has experience selling to international markets like Asia and Latin America. All of that will be useful in advising student teams on product-market fit and building partnerships with businesses across a wide range of industries.

“Fundamentally, I have such respect for R&D groups, whether they’re people working on toothbrushes or coders working on technology,” he says.

Jones also brings some more recent educational experience. He has taught marketing and entrepreneurship at Bentley University since 2007, and also works with Harvard Business School’s admissions office. He says he hopes to cultivate an environment where student entrepreneurs think big and “celebrate the journey.” And that applies across different levels of interest—from students who are curious about entrepreneurship to those in the idea stage seeking mentorship, to … Next Page »

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