Making Harvard (Robotics) Fly

When disparate strands of thought intersect, the extraordinary is born: innovative inventions, breakthrough discoveries, and catalytic partnerships. This is precisely what happens when the Harvard Business School (HBS) and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) come together to discover and invent revolutionary ideas at the crossroads of engineering and entrepreneurship.

Earlier this month, we participated in the first steps towards the extraordinary by co-hosting one of the first collaborations between HBS and SEAS: Making Robotics Fly. At Xfund, we are passionate about promoting collaboration and innovation at the intersection of disciplines and industries, new and old. We were honored to play a small part in this landmark event, humbled by Harvard’s entrepreneurial spirit, and thrilled to be a part of the ongoing bridge-building efforts between HBS and SEAS.

H/T to the Drone Racing League & DigInovations for footage and editing:

Making Robotics Fly was a capstone event of HUBweek, a pioneering civic collaboration between Harvard, MIT, the Boston Globe and the Massachusetts General Hospital, showcasing the best of Boston’s research, art, business, and innovation.

A two-part event, Making Robotics Fly kicked off with a thrilling family-friendly Expo in Harvard Stadium featuring dozens of drone startups demonstrating capabilities in delivery, aerial photography, utility transport, and entertainment.

Hugo Van Vuuren & Stadium Selfie
Dean Doyle, Sally French (Drone Girl), Paula Santana (Matternet), Dean Nitin Nohria
Dean Nitin Nohria (HBS) and Frank Doyle (SEAS) celebrating first Matternet ONE delivery with Sally French and Paula Santana

Harvard Stadium, a 112-year-old colosseum and National Historic Landmark, was inverted, as spectators sat on the storied field while the 50,000 seat stands turned into the arena for racing drones, as well as the stage for demonstrations of cutting-edge robotics technologies.

Robotics Demonstrators and Drone Pilots included:

  • DigiNovations, showing us what it takes to run an aerial production company.
  • CyPhy Works, demonstrating their innovative LVL1 consumer drone.
  • Top Flight Tech, wowing the crowd with their massive, gasoline powered, long-endurance drone.
  • Matternet, staging the first ever drone delivery in Harvard Stadium, allowing the deans of the Harvard Business School and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to deliver to each other t-shirts emblazoned with HBS and SEAS shields.
  • And, last but certainly not least, the Drone Racing League hosted a spectacular finale, with pilots Mr. Steele and UmmaGawd showing off their aerobatic skills in a thrilling drone race through the Stadium stands!

Along with the demonstrations, the audience was captivated by interactive presentations from leading Harvard and MIT engineering research labs, as well as talks by local aerial robotics experts. The event was expertly and energetically moderated by Sally French, a Wall Street Journal technology journalist who blogs actively on all matters drone-related as “Drone Girl.”


MIT “Cheetah” on display at Making Robotics Fly

The MIT “Cheetah” in action from the BioMimetics Robotics Lab. H/T Prof. Sangbae Kim:

If you’re wondering about the logistical and regulatory challenges of coordinating such a spectacular event, you can read more from Aerotas’ Logan Campbell MBA’15, our co-organizer and drone whisperer, on the regulatory, insurance, and safety considerations of operating aerial robots. Good information to know if you’re planning to fly your drones close to a major international airport… as we did!

Following the Expo event, we convened at HBS where startup founders, scholars, and members of the local and global robotics ecosystem discussed the future of the robotics industry. No question was off the table as we debated the regulatory challenges, funding needs, and the role of Boston, the venture community, and research universities like Harvard and MIT, in growing this exciting and emerging field. This expert session was lead by our indefatigable HBS and SEAS senior faculty, Mitch Weiss — who played a superb role as co-curator of Making Robotics Fly, and David Parkes, Area Dean of Computer Science at SEAS and famed researcher cum entrepreneur.

The day concluded with the legendary Professor Bill Sahlman guiding a brainstorming and feedback session on how HBS, SEAS, and the city of Boston, can seize the massive opportunity ahead. Finally, we were treated to a fascinating keynote by Mick Mountz, founder and CEO of Kiva Systems (acquired by Amazon), and proud graduate of both MIT and Harvard, on his own entrepreneurial journey and the exciting robotics developments on the horizon.

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences robotics faculty discuss their research and the opportunities they have for making a difference in the world:

The excitement and potential of robotics technology, and more fundamentally, the marriage of engineering + entrepreneurship in Harvard’s new Allston campus, left everyone inspired.

As Deans Doyle and Nohria highlighted in their Boston Globe Op-Ed after the event:

“Over the next several years, SEAS will expand from its current home in Cambridge into a new state-of-the-art facility on Western Avenue in Allston — just across the street from the HBS campus. The move will place Harvard engineers and scientists steps from its MBA students, and also from the university’s Innovation Lab, which has become a prime destination for Harvard entrepreneurs since it opened in 2011. The new SEAS campus will include an innovation accelerator and sit near an enterprise research zone where established technology companies and startups can claim space alongside health, science, and R&D labs. It sets the stage for other academic disciplines to join us in Allston in the future, joining a vibrant neighborhood that combines university, community, residential, commercial, and green space.
Throughout history, many of the world’s best businesses have resulted from putting the right combination of creative people into close proximity. Indeed, venture capitalists have come to demand that a promising startup have just the right mix of technical and business talent, because startups that lack one or the other are unlikely to get far.”

Harvard and MIT’s contributions to the startup and venture capital industries are legendary. Georges Doriot, an HBS professor and dean, recognized the obligation and opportunity that these schools’ inventors and entrepreneurs had in the postwar era. His American Research and Development Corporation (formed with a former president of MIT) funded breakout companies like Digital Equipment Corporation. In a way, you could say that collaboration between Harvard and MIT’s business and engineering schools invented modern startups and venture capital.

The growth of SEAS, a burgeoning center of engineering innovation where the Harvard Mark 1 computer and ethernet was invented, and where Bill Gates, Grace Hopper, and Mark Zuckerberg earned their hacker stripes, combined with its new location across from HBS and MIT, will cause an explosion of activity.

We foresee a golden era of collaboration to rival the post-war boom. At Xfund, we’re focused on accelerating that collision course between engineering and entrepreneurship, and are excited to be a catalyst!


See more press coverage here: Boston Globe, Gazette, WCVB Channel 5, and the The Crimson.

Thank you to all the faculty, founders, volunteers, and students without whom the collaboration would not be possible.

Thanks to Perry Hewitt, Kristen Ostro, Robb Fitzsimmons, Sandra Stankovic, Scott Morris, Paul Karoff, Colin Maclay, Kate Wang, and Mitch Weiss for reading a draft of this and sharing in the adventure.

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