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 more experienced entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses.

“I’m not a gatekeeper as much as a person setting up a marketplace,” Jones says.

So how is the innovation lab different from other efforts to spur innovation on campus? “What makes this distinct is that the mandate is university wide,” Jones says. “The deans have signed on. The school has put a stake in the ground, where [president] Drew Faust is saying, ‘One Harvard.’”

Of course, anything branded as “university wide” at a place as sprawling and diverse as Harvard (or any big school) is bound to have its challenges. Jones says it will be important to find the right partners and to harness the interest of alumni and friends of the school, while staying deeply involved with students and their interests.

It’s a little early to talk about metrics for success—Jones doesn’t officially start until this Monday—but he’s clearly been thinking about it. The ultimate goal, he says, is to produce more (Harvard-bred) companies that get off the ground, land financing, and create jobs. In the nearer term, softer metrics like event attendance, level of student interest, and community engagement will have to do.

A few early-stage startups and entrepreneurs to watch at Harvard, according to Jones: Nick Krasney and Tuan Ho of Tivli (cloud-based TV); Zach Hamed of Aid Aide (like TurboTax for financial aid); and Jason Gurwin of Pushpins (mobile grocery coupons).

Like most ambitious efforts at universities—think the MIT Media Lab, or Stanford’s d.school (Institute of Design)—the i-lab will need time to come into its own as a true center of innovation.

“I liken it to holding a baby,” Jones says. “Everyone is saying, ‘It’s going to be President of the United States. I’m saying, ‘Let’s get it to first grade.’”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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