Higher-Ed Innovation Labs: Keeping the Entrepreneurial Spirit Alive

Innovation. I know what you’re thinking: I’ve heard that buzzword before. It’s a hot topic that businesses love to throw around, and while we hear it all the time, how often does it refer to something that is actually meaningful?

Well, the innovation I’m talking about today encompasses the full meaning of the word—and I’m not referring to the trendy startups of Silicon Valley. I’m talking about innovation in higher ed.

With the entrepreneurial spirit taking foot at colleges and universities across the country, higher-ed institutions have responded by creating programs to encourage innovation on campus. Now widely known as innovation labs, these programs give students, faculty, and alumni the opportunity to utilize technology and find real solutions to some of the most perplexing and urgent problems that we face today.

Check out these eight schools that are breaking new ground and providing their community members with the space, resources, and mentorship needed to pursue ideas and creative solutions.

Babson College: Social Innovation Lab

Babson’s Social Innovation Lab, funded by a $500,000 two-year grant from the Toyota Foundation, is dedicated to bringing ideas to life and applying these solutions to the real world. Current action projects include Food Sol, Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship, and the Women’s Entrepreneurial Development Lab. With a focus on creating social change, this impressive lab inspires Babson affiliates to look beyond the classroom in order to make a meaningful and positive impact on others.

Dartmouth College: Neukom DALI Lab

Housed in the Computer Science Department at Dartmouth, the Neukom DALI (Digital Arts, Leadership, & Innovation) Lab is comprised of a team of students that works with faculty, nonprofits, government agencies, startups, and more to apply cutting-edge design and technology to a variety of projects. This innovation hub also holds a unique event called The Pitch, a competition that invites students to share their ideas for research, design, and more in order to gain funding and support from DALI. Innovation abound, Dartmouth’s DALI Lab is not only an important creative outlet on campus, but also a chance for students to gain hands-on work experience.


Duke University: Innovation & Entrepreneurship

The Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) initiative at Duke offers a wide range of opportunities for Dukies. From specialized housing for entrepreneurial-minded students to an annual student start-up competition, Duke has created an innovative atmosphere unlike any other. An exciting program within Duke I&E is SEAD (the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke), a lab focused on developing social impact projects to positively affect individuals and communities around the world. With ample resources and programs in place to support and encourage young entrepreneurs, Duke I&E is an outstanding example of a university’s efforts to do good.

Harvard University: i-lab

Harvard may be the oldest university in the country, but this institution is looking towards the future with its recently established Harvard i-lab. Since 2011, the lab has offered students everything from an introduction to entrepreneurship through foundational learning to more advanced services such as venture incubation. With myriad classes, resources, and space, the i-lab is a center of creativity that acts more like a startup incubator than a college classroom. A few initiatives that came to fruition in the i-lab include BevSpot, a startup that links bars and restaurants to alcohol distributors, and Girls Thinking Global, a venture focused on empowering adolescent girls around the world.


Johns Hopkins University: Social Innovation Lab

By focusing on the Baltimore community, JHU’s Social Innovation Lab supports innovative solutions to pressing problems that (quite literally) hit close to home. Supporting both nonprofit and for-profit startups, this lab enables passionate students—or should we call them blossoming entrepreneurs—to pursue ventures ranging from med-tech and health to education. Baltimore Hears is an example of a project that is dedicated to bringing healthcare to the underserved older adult community in the city. “Building a Better Baltimore” has never looked so good as these students—equipped with ample resources from the university itself, as well as from local foundations and grants—do what they can to improve their own community.

Northwestern University: Knight Lab

The Knight Lab, a collaboration between the Medill School of Journalism and the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, combines new technologies with journalism to promote media innovation and “quality storytelling on the Internet.” This niche focus distinguishes the Knight Lab unique from other innovation labs—and the products and services stemming from the lab are a testament to its unique mission. Funnelist, a Twitter List management web app for journalists, and LocalPulse, a news preference analysis tool, are two examples of Knight Lab student projects that have utilized technology to innovate in the world of journalism.

Santa Clara University: Frugal Innovation Lab

At Santa Clara, the Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL) focuses on helping communities and individuals in developing countries through introducing new technologies  to emerging markets. Projects center on renewable energy, clean water, public health, and more, to ensure that basic human needs are met all over the world. The lab itself provides students with the resources and tools necessary to plan and execute these important projects. An especially interesting component of the program is the Mobile Lab, which lives within the FIL and aims to improve the lives of individuals in underprivileged communities with the use of mobile technology.

Villanova University School of Business: Center for Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship

The Center for Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship brings the startup spirit to the Villanova campus, urging all students to discover their inner entrepreneur. This vibrant center features several programs and events, as well as two different opportunities to minor in entrepreneurship. Pitch Day, for example, is an exciting way in which Villanova gives students of different classes a chance to kickstart their business ideas—fostering a community that values creativity and disruptive thinking!


All of these institutions prove that higher-ed administrations have embraced innovation in their willingness to allocate money, staffing, and resources to running these labs. But what about spreading this type of ingenuity to other daily operations at the university—specifically, advancement?

While schools are making a conscious effort to incorporate innovation into the academic curriculum, there seems to be a disconnect as fundraising offices struggle to keep pace. Openness to new technologies and new ideas is an important way to foster efficiency in a hectic professional environment; yet, the field of advancement has only been taking baby steps towards building innovative new practices into their day-to-day. As the higher-ed space becomes more tech-savvy and entrepreneur-friendly, advancement offices will need to continue thinking outside of the box to discover transformative ways of reaching donors and raising more money.


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