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The Harvard i-lab turns two, bringing together innovators across campus

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Harvard University’s Innovation Lab — a space dedicated to fostering entrepreneurial growth among students — celebrated its second anniversary Monday.

A multidimensional 30,000 square foot space with all the bright sexy flora and fauna — yes there’s an XBox — of the contemporary startup space, the i-lab, as it is known, has come a long way since its early days in the fall of 2011.

“I don’t even think they had a building permit,” said Eliot Buchanan, founder and CEO of Plastiq and a recent i-lab graduate. “It was just a bunch of concrete and some white boards.”

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Plastiq, a payment company that allows users to employ a credit card for expenditures where credit is not usually accepted, really started off as “just a project” with a fellow student, Buchanan said. At that time there were only two teams in the i-lab but after Plastiq’s eight- or nine- month stay, the lab had already grown to around 50 teams.

“It was impressive to see how quickly things came together,” Buchanan said.

Today company’s that have gone through the i-lab have raised more than $50 million in venture funding and the lab has housed nearly 300 unique ventures over the course of six separate 100-day terms.

In the first two years the i-lab has not tracked groups that do not continue incubating their idea or move on to first level funding, according to Gordon Jones, i-lab’s managing director.

A safe guess would be that half of the startups do not pursue their venture beyond the i-lab, he said.

If a company doesn’t make it the lab is hardly to blame.

“The resources we make available aren’t going to be the limiting factor for a company,” said Jones.

Beyond the bright colored chairs and modern design the lab provides a lot of resources for students and their groups who are trying to gain traction, said both Jones and Buchanan. Among those resources are access to legal council and venture capitalists who routinely make their way through the space, a fabrication lab, conference and presentation space, and, of course, open format desk layouts.

While located next to the Harvard Business School the i-lab serves as a nexus for the decentralized university with all 14 schools being represented.

“Even the divinity school,” Jones said.

The diversified interdisciplinary approach is one of the unique qualities of Harvard’s angle on an innovation center, Jones said.

A quality that didn’t happen right away.

The proximity to the business school and distance from the hub of Harvard’s campus meant attracting students from the different schools would take time and effort.

”It took probably six to 12 months to attract students from all parts of the campus,” Buchanan said.

While by no means a first in university incubator-type spaces, Jones said the humanities centric background of Harvard influenced how the space is meant to bring the university together rather than emphasize a singular discipline. And that, he said, is unique.

“I don’t know of any other space that has everything we offer under one roof,” Jones said.

The lab accepts about half of all applicants and selects them based on stage of development and not necessarily perceived viability.

For ideas that do grow into full fledged companies the lab really facilitates full cycle growth, Buchanan said.

Plastiq is a perfect example: A two person team that started out in the unfinished Harvard Innovation Lab that has now secured $8.6 million in venture capital, hired employees, and moved on to offices on Newbury Street.

Looking to the future Jones said the lab hopes to engage more with alumni and begin exploring what the space could do for highly motivated and skilled people with a solid risk profile but perhaps a slight lack of expertise in a given field and without an idea to inspire a venture.

No matter what new directions, the central approach to including all schools at Harvard remains at i-lab’s core.

“I view this as an extension of each school’s campus,” Jones said.

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