This piece is part of the Slate 90, a series that examines the multibillion-dollar nonprofit sector. Read all stories from the Slate 90 here, and view the Slate 90 nonprofit rankings here.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—You don’t need to drop out of Harvard and move to the West Coast to start a company anymore. You can cross the Charles River to the i-Lab, a 30,000-square-foot incubator for undergraduates that the university founded in 2011. Tech office style prevails in this building behind the vaunted Harvard Business School: open floor, whiteboards, a ping-pong table. In the da Vinci room, students can use machine tools. The mission: “unlocking unrealized value that can have a deep impact on markets, on the world, and on the individuals who walk through these doors.” Or, in plain English, helping undergrads start companies. Across the street is another innovation lab, with a focus on life sciences, open to graduate students and alumni.
For Harvard (No. 1 in the Slate 90 Education sector), it’s only the start of an effort to commercialize the churn of new ideas that has always characterized coursework, research, and lunchtime chatter at elite universities. The Innovation Lab will soon be joined by an Enterprise Research Campus, “a community for business, investment capital, research and science development” in Allston, where Harvard has amassed 250 acres of land. Originally set to expand the university’s footprint by 10 million square feet—about half the size of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina’s prime office space—the proposed Allston campus was downsized in the wake of the financial crisis. But it is still an ambitious bit of city planning, one that represents the new strategy that urban research universities are now pursuing—expanding into the commercial real estate for revenue, status, and influence. Out of the ivory tower; into the cap stack.
Harvard’s Allston plan may be the largest university-led urban development project in the country. But you would be hard-pressed to find a peer institution that has notthrown itself into commercial property development. While the word campus comes from the Latin for “field,” the old-style gated quad, set apart from the town or up on a hill, is decidedly out of fashion. Universities remain nonprofits to be sure, exempt from all manner of taxes. But as the Slate 90 list shows, they are very large businesses. And because of this, their economic role in the American city is rapidly evolving. Yale (No. 2 in the Education sector) has spent the past two decades buying strips of storefronts around its New Haven campus, recruiting a Barnes and Noble and an Apple Store to what had once been low-rent rows of local businesses. Yale is now New Haven’s largest commercial landlord.