Harvard i-Lab founder on building an ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ at BSU

In February, Boise State University president Bob Kustra announced Harvard University’s Gordon Jones would lead a new initiative designed to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration while providing a 21st century education: the newly created College of Innovation and Design.

“Based on his work at the Harvard I-Lab and his experience in the marketplace of commerce and ideas, Gordon Jones is the perfect person to lead the effort that will produce transformational degrees and certificates required of a 21st century university education,” Kustra said in a University news release.

For the past four years, Jones has served as founding director of the influential Harvard Innovation Lab, a program lauded for its role in nurturing startups built by students and community partners. The “i-lab”, as its colloquially known, is designed to provide support for these startups, and assist Harvard students across University programs as they launch businesses, develop skills and work with the private sector.

Universities are increasingly interested in developing expertise beyond the classroom, connecting students with real-world projects before graduation.

“The Innovation Lab is really the University’s idea of letting students take their own ideas and run with them,” said Jones, on the phone from Boston.

Jones has built a career out of dual passions for teaching and business, which he partly attributes to his father, who played an active role in education in Jones’ Connecticut hometown. In his early college days, Jones spent his summer vacations building experience with PepsiCo. He has served in sales, marketing and management roles at The Gillette Company, Procter & Gamble, and within prominent startups.

“I’ve always found myself in business—and in education—at the margin of establishing entities and where they want to try to find value,” said Jones. “…[T]he common theme is being an innovator in those roles, no matter what size they are.”

For decades, Boise State University has made no small impact on the Boise Valley, Idaho and the region. 2015 brought national recognition to the University’s community partnerships and investments in research.

Following his State of the Union Address, in January President Barack Obama delivered remarks on “Middle Class Economics” theme at Boise State University, while shining a spotlight on the University’s pioneering New Product Development Lab, embedded within the College of Engineering and designed to connect the classroom with the private sector.

“Here at Boise State innovation is a culture that you're building,” the President told a crowd of thousands assembled at Taco Bell Arena.

That culture of innovation extends beyond the New Product Development Lab, into a much broader University initiative designed to bring together a cross-disciplinary group of students and faculty, while continuing the University’s work with industry and community groups.

The University has in recent years supported new approaches to learning, including the Center for Entrepreneurship within the College of Business and Economics, as well as Venture College, a program aimed at helping students launch a business or nonprofit. Jones indicated he had worked with University leaders like Kent Neupert, Kevin Learned and Mary Andrews prior to receiving an offer from Boise State.

While Jones won’t officially take his post until May, he already has extensive plans and new ideas for his College. He described the College of Innovation and Design as a place for students to come together from across the University’s existing degree programs and Colleges.

“You’ll find multiple doorways for students to interact with the College of Innovation and Design,” said Jones.

Additional programs will be designed to connect education to employment, including degree programs, but also certificates, minors, experiences as well as “badges”—an approach already used by Venture College.

Jones said a student might, for example, interface with the College of Innovation and Design by opting to pursue the College’s Gaming Interactive Media Mobile Technology (GIMM) program, which will draw on knowledge from disciplines across art, educational technology and computer science, and prepares students for web development, video game design and other creative careers.

“That’s the most direct contact,” he said. “You could come in and get a certificate on leadership [a program lead by Department of Communication professor Heidi Reeder, PhD]. That’s a way to further individualize your experience, and further distinguish yourself as you come out of Boise State…I think it’s a very powerful way to for students to further customize their educational journey.”

Other College initiatives include the Human-Environment Systems Research Center, a research-focused Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program supported by a grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and an Energy Analysis Graduate Certificate.

“I think the College of Innovation and Design is going to be one piece of the puzzle that [students] are going to find as they customize and speak to their own areas of interest,” Jones said. Jones described a hypothetical student pursuing a nursing degree, but passionate about health policy. That theoretical undergraduate might pursue a Narrative Arts program, or pursue a leadership certificate—and then market those dual skills to an employer after graduation.

Currently, the structure of Universities in general may not allow students to pursue ideas outside the strict confines of their degree programs. Jones referenced Facebook founder and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, whose interest in computer science and entrepreneurship didn’t mesh with academia. The College of Innovation and Design’s experimental structure seeks to position the University as an advocate of students like Zuckerberg.

Jones said that currently, those who are truly motivated can and do design degree programs around their diverse interests. But an institutional effort designed to foster this approach, he said, is a valuable role for Universities to play.

“When you set up a mechanism for it, you activate additional people who really should be doing it,” he said. “You can’t expect everyone to climb their way to the top of the mountain without a marked path. By creating a mechanism for that, I think you can unleash that for people in larger numbers.“

While he’s had the opportunity to participate in “entrepreneurial ecosystems” across the U.S. and abroad, Jones cited a bootstrapping culture and an overall “special feel” in Boise.

“All those ingredients and culture marks are impressive. I’m quite bullish on where Boise, the Treasure Valley and I believe the State, is going,” he said.