The Lab at Harvard: Experiments in Culture
We enter a lab to explore and discover, and each minute inside should be like turning the page of a smart novel. Art and Science, while commonly encountered as creative outcomes, are, as creative processes, inherently intertwined in the unpredictable arc of laboratory creation.
One of my core beliefs - to the point of mantra - is that working at disciplinary intersections is key to any truly paradigm-changing experiment. My work with experimenters who display this special kind of courage helped inspire, and name, The Experiment Fund. I’d like to tell the story of one of the first grand experiments I joined at Harvard.
We believed in experiments at intersections. And the art that we made, with real science backing it, has become more rewarding for ourselves, our backers, and our institutions, than we could have ever guessed.
More than 3 years ago I joined Professor David Edwards (our brilliant Principal Investigator), as the Founding Director of The Laboratory at Harvard. We set out on an adventure to bring together Cherry Murray’s Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Don Ingber’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Paul Farmer and Sue Goldie’s Global Health Institute, Diane Paulus' American Repertory Theatre, and Mohsen Mostafavi’s Harvard Graduate School of Design.
We had this crazy idea – call it an hypothesis – for a three-year experiment. We wanted to throw together leading artists and scientists to investigate ideas at the frontiers of culture and knowledge. Each year we would showcase the fruits of this wild collaboration on in a new inter-disciplinary building designed by SOM, convening and inspiring the entire community. In this space we’d create a forum to help catalyze ideas, teach engineering workshops and design studios, host challenging exhibitions, and bring various audiences; the college, graduate schools, faculty, international artists and scientists, and residents of Cambridge, together to explore and play.
It was, given the context, an uncontrolled experiment with highly controlling subjects.
It was also one of the more fascinating periods of my life. Not only did we get to play the role of naughty catalyst in the heart of a safe and storied institution, but we also had the privilege to interact, on our terms, with some of the most respected faculty and passionate students this side of the Atlantic. We learned a great deal about the unique differences and potential that exist between insurgent team-leadership and defensive institutional-governance, the space between private and public funding, and the complementary nature of the scientific method and artistic process.
We proved that the fertile ground between the arts and sciences is not confined to the era of Aristotle, nor daVinci, nor Descartes. Indeed, we found that people yearn to live and work at the intersection and that its greatest potential is yet to be discovered. Not just at the frontiers of analog and digital knowledge, but, as David Edwards wrote in The Lab: Creativity and Culture at the intersection of institutions, cultures, and fields.
It was not always easy. But over the last few years, with the generous support of Lab @ Harvard Partners, classes of enterprising students, and leading faculty, we have spun out venture backed companies, sent dozens of students to Africa, Europe, and Asia, got published, hosted state of the art traveling exhibitions, and helped pioneer new methods of experiential learning at Harvard. We had fun and in the process mentored dozens of students who went on to create startups, join leading incubators, publish their passions, experiment, and further their studies at top graduate schools. Many chose to stay close to the nest and now lead lab spin-outs with competence and charisma.
We came, we experimented, we spun-out.
Today, nearly three years later, we are proud to announce that the Lab @ Harvard will continue on its mission, reborn, as The Lab Cambridge. Not content disrupting just one stroried university… the now independent Lab will exist at the geographic and spiritual intersection of Harvard and MIT.
The Lab Cambridge will join The Lab Paris, better known in France as Le Laboratoire, as part of Artscience Labs. This independent network of cultural innovation labs will continue to join the great minds of Harvard and MIT, and also The Boston and Cambridge Public School system, through cultural experimentation in the international Petri-dish that is The People’s Republic of Cambridge.
Enriched through my time at The Lab, and with degree in hand, I left earlier this year to co-found The Experiment Fund with deeply humbling partners. Anchored at Harvard, this new commercial venture bridges the world of academia and the world of venture by seed investing in world-changing startups. The Lab @ Harvard inspires our method, instilled a love of risk-taking, and christened us with deep friendships in university administrations, alumni world-wide, and the student body.
Startups, at their core, are small tribes of experimenters advancing progress. -The Xfund
I have learned that when it comes to successful idea translation, whether in labs, ateliers, or startups, it is not only the breakthrough eureka ideas, but the chemistry of the team, that determines success or failure. Venture and academia are not polar opposites, as some might have you believe. After all, serial entrepreneurs and productive labs are known for their ability to rapidly re-assemble teams to exploit new opportunities. Pick your collaborators – your tribe – wisely. They ensure your continued success and make the experiment all the more worth undertaking!
Special thanks to my mentor and friend David Edwards, and collaborators Jessica Sara Lin, Aviva Presser Aiden, Suelin Chen, Carrie Fitzsimmons, Tom Hadfield, Paulina Mustafa, David Sengeh, Alexandre Terrien, Sauli Pillay, Liz Liao, Jesselynn Opie, Mark Pimental, Dan Borelli, Beth Altringer, Brandon Bird, Harvard SEAS, The Office of the Provost, and Mike Smith. Also our individual and institutional friends in Cambridge, Paris, Singapore, Dublin, Cape Town, and Riyadh.