Innovate Before You Incubate: Harvard's Real World Obstacle Course for Practicing Innovation

Tech innovators and web entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Their stories are fueling a sub-culture of entrepreneurial-obsessed students that see start-ups as exciting alternatives to traditional employment.
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Tech innovators and web entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Their stories from garage start-ups to wired stardom are fueling a sub-culture of entrepreneurial-obsessed students that see start-ups as exciting alternatives to traditional employment.

Many of today's students aspire to never write a resume. The aggressively ambitious are viewing universities not just as a place to obtain credentials that will get them a job, but also as networking opportunities to acquire the resources necessary to launch a company and create the job that they want.

The mythology surrounding tech heroes like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg is every bit as alluring as fame achieved through athletics, acting, or music. The success stories of student contemporaries, like Zuckerberg, make the direct transition from dorm room to board room seem possible. Rock stardom for the bright, but maybe not-so-beautiful, appears closer than ever before. Sensationalized stories of start-up success can create a perception that young geniuses need venture capital, not educational refinement or degrees.

Student start-ups present educators with difficult questions. Supporting this type of ambition with resources could help improve the likelihood of success, but over-incubation could create false optimism.

How do you keep aggressive students from premature entry into the market place? How do you increase their odds of success through the core mission of education? How do you encourage the talented, but less aggressive, to consider entrepreneurship?

A new interdisciplinary course at Harvard teaches the science of innovation as preparation for entrepreneurship.

Dr. Beth Altringer, Visiting Lecturer at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, created a course called The Innovators' Practice: Finding, building and leading good ideas with others, where teams of students from different disciplines are challenged to explore their interests, identify problems as opportunities, develop an idea, and design a solution. What is interesting about this course is that the focus is less on the things that the students create and more on the actual process of innovation.

Altringer's background in organizational psychology, architecture, and experience with innovative projects in diverse fields led to an educational approach that is about creating an environment where ideas can be nurtured and strengthened through a rigorous process. She runs the course with the non-linear flexibility of a design school but applies evaluation methodologies and critical challenges to the teams that rely on the skill sets she developed as a psychologist.

Her class is a sort of multidisciplinary obstacle course that provides the students with simulated real world challenges that face most innovators. She brings in both academic and industry experts to critique the projects. The student teams are challenged on multiple fronts, including the novelty, usability, financial, technical, and aesthetic aspects of the project and the clarity, accuracy, and dynamics of their verbal presentations.

She is aware of the students' interest in start-ups and uses it as motivation. When talking about the perception of overnight start-up success she says:

This myth is pervasive. They are hearing about a rock star tech reality and, compared to their other options like banking, consulting, or research, it looks like a lot more fun. There is a success bias and a lot of the stories don't talk about the starving artist days, interpersonal problems that can derail projects, or how you bounce back from moments like discovering that a version of your idea already exists. These hurdles are common but seldom talked about, and the good news is we can teach ways to deal with them. There are levels of good ideas and teams and innovation is the process of traveling through them.

Altringer sees her course as a place to practice, not as an incubator. Entrepreneurship is not the goal but rather the opportunity to teach the science of innovation and provide group communication and leadership skills that will prepare students to deal with multifaceted challenges.

This is an opportunity to practice innovation in a safer environment than the real world.

Effectively teaching entrepreneurship is not just about how to start a business once you get a great idea but, rather, how to strengthen and grow an idea through collaboration, criticism and testing. Altringer teaches the fundamental communication skills that support and strengthen interdisciplinary innovation, and the mechanics and operations of entrepreneurship are introduced as opportunities to test ideas.

There is a lot of conflicting data about what percentage of start-ups fail, but certainly it is a high number. The opportunity to fail in a simulated environment, where students can learn from it and not suffer personal economic hardship, is invaluable.

Dr. Altringer explains to the students in her syllabus that:

Genuinely good ideas, and highly capable entrepreneurs, fail all the time. Like anything, innovation (or creating ideas with impact, as I broadly define it in this class) takes practice and specific learnable skills. The under-represented side of innovation is that great ideas are important, but they're not enough. Your ideas will only succeed if other people want them to. Today, innovation is highly interactive, taking place in teams, and teams of teams, across disciplines, cultures and organizations, and your success is dependent on people choosing to interact with whatever you've created. Whether inside your design team as you're building your project, or out in the market after you've released it to the world, other people will determine whether your ideas are influential or not.

So what happens when you encourage multidisciplinary teams to address real world issues?

I recently attended the end of semester presentation and was thoroughly entertained by the diverse set of talents and topics displayed. The students did not exude the suited bravado and jargon common at business plan competitions, and were delighted to explain how the simulations exposed weaknesses that evolved their ideas to further advancement. Their ability to joke about early ideas and mistakes made me feel like I was talking to a group of hardened start-up veterans. They got their first war stories and scares without ever having to face live ammunition.

The final presentations were thoughtful inquiries into challenges and opportunities, not chest thumping declarations of profit potential. The TED style presentations were short but dynamic and the entire event was skillfully coordinated by teaching assistants Darcie Dieman and Wenyi Dai. Here are brief descriptions of the three projects I enjoyed the most:


POLITOSCAPE makes it easy and convenient to explore the spectrum of political views by helping people identify and diversify their media 'echo chamber.' This team united around the issue that, in a world where we increasingly consume information that corresponds to what we already find interesting, people are getting narrower in their views. This is likely to have broader educational, social and political ramifications that we do not yet fully understand. This group is building an algorithm that helps people identify and diversify their info/media consumption 'echo chamber.' They are working on an algorithm and associated applications that can suggest alternative, quality viewpoints and information to users, and focusing their product on the upcoming 2012 election year.


VACCINE TEAM is designing a cheap, reliable way to detect the freezing of vaccines during transport, which renders them ineffective.

As they learned more about why their initial designs, which were largely focused on issues surrounding syringe technology, this team discovered important issues in stabilizing the vaccine cold chain, particularly when vaccines travel to developing regions, where control over the cold chain can be difficult. Existing technologies can show whether a vaccine has been overheated, often rendering it ineffective, though technologies for showing whether vaccines have been frozen are less reliable. This team is creating a simple solution that shows when a vaccine has been frozen, and where exactly in the cold chain freezing occurred.


GOMANGO is a novel mango transportation device for Haitian farmers that uses a suspension system to minimize bruising currently caused by burlap sacks in transporting mangoes, one of Haiti's top agricultural exports.

In September, this team framed their project challenge: How might we improve food storage solutions to improve the lives of Haitian farmers?

Their project centers around the issue of mangos in Haiti (mango is the main agricultural product, and over 50% of the fruit gets damaged in transit from tree to town (Port au Prince), resulting in significant economic loss. The team is creating a low-cost container and components that can be used with existing sacks and crates to minimize bruising in transit, as well as exploring ways to productively use fruit that does get bruised to generate small-scale entrepreneurship.

Even though some of the student teams have created interest from both industry and investors, Altringer insists that this is not an incubator program but rather a simulating environment that is flexible enough to experience real world stumbles, and provide for useful failure and recovery.

At this stage in the game she feels that the students need to evolve their ideas and skill sets, not worry about ownership and fine tuning their pitch to investors. Premature launches cannot only lead to wasted resources but also siphon technical expertise away from the innovation in its early stages.

Geniuses are born but innovation through collaboration can be learned.

My own experiences with research teams and start-ups taught me that developing technologies within the structure of single academic disciplines is challenging but efficient and clean.

Transforming an idea into a profitable business is messy. Transforming an idea into a business that is economically sustainable and socially progressive is very messy.

The easy problems have been solved and the messy societal challenges left will require reflective and empathetic leaders who are used to collaborating and incorporating multiple skill sets. We should encourage educators who break the disciplinary gridlock within academic environments where evaluation is often conducted with the segregated values of a particular field.

In a culture that loves movies about super heroes, we should expect media outlets to perpetuate the myth that technological innovation is the result of individual genius. Extraordinarily talented individuals are more interesting than well-coordinated teams of people who are merely smart. Maybe we will blessed with a few progressively minded geniuses who are willing and able to solve our hardest problems, but waiting to be saved is not a plan. Let us rethink how we encourage the multitude of ambitious students to form intellectually diverse teams that collaborate and create.

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