Launching Ideas: Harvard Grid’s Lab-to-Launch Lounge Series

Grid series introduces students to young entrepreneurs

Paul Hayre introduces Daniele Foresti and Jasper Neggers for the March 18 Lab-to-Launch Lounge Series event

Harvard Grid director Paul Hayre introduces AcousticaBio co-founder CEO Daniele Foresti and Promakhos Therapeutics co-founder and CSO Jasper Neggers at the March 16 Lab-to-Launch Lounge Series event. (Harvard Grid)

Nicole Black knew she was interested in entrepreneurship while pursuing graduate degrees at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), but struggled to find a likeminded community. That didn’t stop Black, S.M. '16, Ph.D. '20, who spun out Beacon Bio from her academic research in the lab of Jennifer Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at SEAS. Black later sold Beacon Bio to Desktop Metal, transitioning into Desktop Metal’s Vice President of Biomaterials and Innovation and is currently working to bring her team’s PhonoGraft® device to patients.

Introducing graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to stories like that is one of the goals of the Lab-to-Launch Lounge (LLL) Series offered by the Harvard Grid, a translation engine and collaboration between SEAS and the Office of Technology Development. Co-created by Black, Grid executive director Paul Hayre and Harvard Innovations Lab Director of Programs and Engagement Leo Guyshan, the series brings recent Harvard PhDs who launched with their research into chief experience, executive, operations, technology or strategy officer roles in venture-funded startups together. These monthly chats over food and drinks are intended to attract an audience of 15 students to keep the interaction engaging and casual, hence the moniker ‘Lounge’ in the series title. LLLs began this past semester and will resume later this month.

“Right now, we often think conventionally about career options after a Ph.D. program,” Hayre said. “For example, most PhD students enter thinking of only academia or industry post-graduation, and the idea of other paths, notably startups and entrepreneurship, is something that is not as frequently considered. By seeing and engaging with returning Lab-to-Launch Lounge panelists, students see first-hand how others – others most recently in their exact shoes – crafted and pursued another path in career and life. To hear how others from the Harvard research ecosystem evaluated similar options and made different choices reduces barriers, opens new paths, and deflates inertia in a way that very few other initiatives can.”

Nicole Black leads a discussion with Robert Gustafson and Gregory Ekchian at the March 7 Lab-to-Launch Lounge event

Nicole Black, S.M. '16, Ph.D. '20 leads a discussion with Terascale co-founder and CEO Robert Gustafson and Stratagen Bio co-founder and CEO Gregory Ekchian at the March 7 Lab-to-Launch Lounge event. (Harvard Grid)

Six LLL chats took place during its inaugural semester this spring, covering a range of fields including biotech, quantum computing and physical and life sciences. Attendees and panelists sat together in a circle, with Black asking kickoff questions while leaving plenty of time for students to ask their own.

“It’s supposed to be a casual environment, where people can feel free to step in and ask questions and not feel like it’s a formal event,” Black said. “In some sessions, the audience would ask more questions of the panelists than I did. It ended up forming some good connections between Ph.D. students and postdocs and the founders. Instead of them just talking to the founders, it’s more of an engaging, back-and-forth conversation.”

Black’s questions tend to focus on the earliest stages of launching a startup: how to choose co-founders, how to locate a lab or office that meets your needs, how to raise or spend early funding, how to build a strategy for your patents and intellectual property.

“There are many different ways to do science spinoffs, but the crux of a tech company is its intellectual property,” Black said. “I also always ask where they’re located, and how they chose that location. There’s very different advice for if you’re in physical or life sciences and need a lab space, compared to if you’re founding a tech company and just need laptops and an office.”

Previous LLL chats took place all over Harvard, including both the Allston and Cambridge sides of the SEAS campus as well as the Longwood Medical Area near Harvard Medical School. Attendance ranged from the high single digits to as many as 20, but the goal is to keep the chats small enough that everyone feels engaged. Free food, beer and wine add to the casual atmosphere.

Paul Hayre chats with Christophe Chantre and Christina Chang at a Harvard Grid event at the Science and Engineering Complex

Harvard Grid director Paul Hayre chats with Tender Food co-founder and CEO Christophe Chantre and Lowercarbon Capital partner Christina Chang at the May 9 Lab-to-Launch Lounge event at the Science and Engineering Complex. (Harvard Grid)

“We like this intimate setting where panelists can directly speak with the audience, and the audience doesn’t feel like they need to raise their hands to participate,” said Sally Klimp, Program Manager of the Harvard Grid. “It’s more of a dialogue and conversation, and we really like how that format makes people feel like it’s a no-risk conversation with people who are also new to this environment.”

Black and Circe Bioscience co-founder and CEO Shannon Nangle will be the featured guests at the June 22 LLL chat. Another LLL will take place later this summer, and the series will resume its monthly gatherings in the fall.

“The idea is to reach out to students throughout Harvard to engage with other current and recent grad students in a trajectory-changing way by diving deep into personal case studies, especially when and how decisions were made,” Hayre said. “Those who attend exact new ideas, expand their aspirations, add to their Harvard network, and leave enthralled by an intimate conversation with a scientist or engineer about their venturing journey. In the end, the Grid’s LLL series and all its endeavors are about creating the village that it takes to support Harvard researchers in launching their ideas and work from lab to market.”

Topics: Entrepreneurship, Events

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