Every Harvard University student who opens a laptop to catch the latest episode of “Girls” owes a debt of gratitude to Mark Zuckerberg.
The Facebook Inc. (FB) chairman and his dorm-room buddies, who created the $64 billion social-media site at Harvard in 2004, sparked a startup culture at the university that’s still gaining momentum. One campus-hosted company, Tivli, is using software and TV-network deals to offer the HBO series and other fare to students. The startup is not only breaking a longstanding restriction on cable in Harvard’s housing, it’s also vying to reshape how pay-TV is delivered.
Harvard is fostering a reputation as a hotbed for innovation, working more actively than in the days of Mark Zuckerberg -- or Bill Gates before him -- to promote entrepreneurship and weave it into campus life. The school is steering undergraduates and graduates to its Innovation Laboratory, or i-lab, now the headquarters for Tivli and more than 100 fledgling companies founded by students and alumni.
“Harvard’s attitude toward entrepreneurship today is a complete 180 from what it used to be,” said Tuan Ho, who founded Tivli in 2009 with Nicholas Krasney -- in their dorm room. “Now, computer-science classes encourage students to come up with ideas and take them over to the i-lab to turn them into businesses. That would never have happened years ago.”
Located next to Harvard Business School in Boston, the 18-month-old i-lab also hosts student-founded companies such as RallyPoint, a networking website for military members, and Vaxess Technologies, which is working on a way to reformulate vaccines so they don’t need refrigeration.
Harvard plans to use the facility as a hub of innovation for the entire university, much as the seeds for Yahoo! Inc. and Google Inc. were planted in Stanford University’s California computer labs. It’s a way to avoid losing students like Gates, who dropped out in 1975 to found Microsoft Corp.
“There’s always been a focus around here on investment banking and consulting, but you can feel an entrepreneurial spirit sprouting,” said Will Ahmed, who graduated from Harvard last year and now runs i-lab tenant Bobo, a technology and data- analysis company providing health feedback for athletes and coaches. “At Stanford, starting a company is a career path. Now it’s beginning to be one here, too.”
For Tivli, Harvard is both a home base and a blue-chip client. The company provides a way for the university to offer cable channels via Internet connections, allowing students to watch on computers and tablets for free, akin to applications offered by pay-TV providers such as Time Warner Cable Inc. (TWC:US)
While companies such as Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US), Dish Network Corp. (DISH:US) and Intel Corp. are working on similar concepts, Tivli is offering its service to universities in partnerships with pay-TV providers. Users can view live and on-demand TV and are able to record shows to watch online later.
The channel lineup includes Time Warner Inc.’s HBO, which sees Tivli as a way to directly market its programming to college students -- a group the cable industry is concerned may never sign up for pay-TV after becoming accustomed to free online video.
Harvard is paying Tivli for its service and providing it for no extra charge to students who live on campus. That’s a big shift for the university, which long resisted giving students cable TV in their rooms for philosophical reasons, Leo Donnelly, Harvard’s information-technology infrastructure director, said in an interview. The original idea was to prevent students from watching too much TV, a principle that’s become impossible to enforce in the era of YouTube and Netflix.
“It used to be that Harvard had some control of the amount of video students could watch,” Donnelly said. “Those days have changed.”
Zuckerberg, who met with Tivli’s founders when he visited the i-lab in 2011, didn’t have the kind of support from Harvard that the TV startup and its cohorts now enjoy. When Facebook was getting off the ground, the university didn’t adopt the site as its official online “facebook,” sticking with its own less- developed house directories.
Zuckerberg declined to comment, according to Larry Yu, a Facebook spokesman.
“While student entrepreneurship has been historically less of a focus at Harvard, the university has developed a novel and innovative approach,” Gordon Jones, the i-lab’s managing director, said in an interview.
Facebook grew by spreading among colleges, campus to campus, a tactic Tivli is imitating. The TV startup has struck deals with Yale University, Texas A&M University and the University of Washington, among others. Once it gets enough traction with colleges, Tivli plans to market its service to hotels and apartment complexes, according to President Christopher Thorpe.
For now, Tivli’s employees peer into laptops in a warehouse-like space in the i-lab, where a horde of shabbily dressed students munch on free food as they plot the future of about 100 burgeoning startups housed in the building. The 30,000-square-foot (2,800-square-meter) facility also holds classes and lectures on starting companies and applying for grants and seed money, and runs competitions for ideas with cash prizes.
“This has been Harvard 2.0 for me,” said Bobo’s Ahmed. “In the next five years there will be a dramatic paradigm shift in terms of the entrepreneurial spirit at Harvard. Hopefully you won’t lose the Facebooks to Silicon Valley.”
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