Harvard i-lab Sprouts Startups: Nucleik, PollVaultr, Vaxess, & More

The Harvard Innovation Lab has been open for business just over a year. Led by managing director Gordon Jones and his team of startup hustlers, the Allston, MA-based community space for student entrepreneurs is just hitting its stride, with a number of current and former residents making noise in the local and national startup scene.

The i-lab is an ambitious $20 million effort to provide a central rallying point for entrepreneurs across all of Harvard. The building houses classes, meetings, and seminars on entrepreneurship and business, as well as office space for student-led companies. It hosts events ranging from last month’s Yo-Yo Ma performance (to kick off an arts-and-business initiative) to an upcoming startup career fair on Feb. 1.

Coverage of the facility in the local media has been mixed, but mostly positive. In November, the Boston Globe ran an informative feature and a glowing op-ed about the i-lab’s progress and impact on local entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, Boston magazine published a rather anti-Harvard piece—arguing that MIT is far ahead in supporting entrepreneurs, and criticizing the i-lab as a “derivative enterprise.”

That seems harsh—especially with startups and incubators becoming increasingly mainstream—but to each his own. Jones doesn’t seem to take any of it personally. He’s too busy working with students, Harvard administrators, and local business leaders such as Michael Skok, Jeff Bussgang, Jon McNeill, and Jeffrey Beir.

“This is a step toward a new Harvard,” Jones says. “I like the trajectory.”

It’s still early, but Jones has been surprised by the scale and breadth of businesses that the i-lab has the potential to affect. In about 30 seconds, he rattles off the names of a dozen Harvard entrepreneurs working on startups across the realms of Internet, software, security, sensors, cancer diagnostics, vaccines, and cosmetics. There are about 130 student teams currently in residence. “I thought we’d be a specialty baker, but we’ve turned more into Whole Foods,” he says.

And as such, he’s thinking a lot about how to keep the i-lab from becoming another walled garden in the local ecosystem. He laments that there is “little overlap in silos around Boston.” So he says he’s trying to expand his network and do his part to “get universities to collaborate” more.

It will take years to gauge the impact of the effort—and we’ll see if the next Zuckerberg leaves Boston and heads west anyway (he or she should check the tax laws for investors)—but so far the i-lab seems to be on track.

Here are a few of its startups and alums that I’ve been hearing about lately:

Bounce Imaging is developing small, portable sensors that first responders can throw into a disaster area to get pictures and data on the surroundings (sent to their mobile devices). The company won $50,000 from MassChallenge and was recently featured in Time magazine. A good example of MIT and Harvard working together.

Nucleik makes software to help police collect and analyze data on criminal networks and behavior. Sounds like it applies tools from business intelligence, social networks, and analytics to the world of policing. The software has been piloted in Springfield, MA.

PollVaultr, a former i-lab resident, is now taking part in the Y Combinator accelerator program in Silicon Valley. The company makes software to help businesses run customer surveys at checkout using a tablet computer. Seems like an interesting entry point into the digital marketing and analytics realm.

Pushpins, another former resident, has been acquired by Performance Marketing Brands in San Francisco. The company makes an iOS app for digital coupons and promotions at grocery stores. It moved to Silicon Valley after being founded in 2010 by Harvard business students.

RallyPoint is sort of like LinkedIn for U.S. military personnel. The company won $100,000 from MassChallenge in October. From what I know, the site helps active personnel looking for positions in the military as well as those making the transition to civilian careers. Led by two military veterans who started the company out of HBS in 2012.

Vaxess Technologies is commercializing a technique that enables vaccines to be shipped and stored without being refrigerated—a huge global problem. Vaxess is led by an HBS alum and a team of chemists, biomedical engineers, and global health experts. The technology, which involves adding vaccines to a silk protein solution, originated at Tufts University (another example of collaboration between schools).

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One response to “Harvard i-lab Sprouts Startups: Nucleik, PollVaultr, Vaxess, & More”

  1. I’m happy to see you cover this story Greg. It’s easy to bash Harvard and glad you didn’t. I spend two afternoons a month at the i-Lab in my role as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard B-school. In that capacity anyone across the university can make an appointment with me to get advice on their own venture. (I feel like I am Lucy dispensing advice, and it’s not worth a whole lot more than 5 cents at times.) Believe me the joint is jumpin’! The b-school students don’t surprise me with their entrepreneurial ideas and ambitions (except the huge number of guys who are starting fashion-related ventures) but I am agog at the number of undergrads who are starting companies. They are going to give Zuckerberg a run for his money. In some meetings I find myself saying. “Wait a minute. You are at HARVARD. You are a FRESHMAN! Why are you starting a company right this minute?” They look at me with blank stares that pretty much say, “Because I can. Why not?”