Inside the New ‘InnovationHQ’ at MIT

By Nora Swidey |  August 24, 2022

MIT’s InnovationHQ stands on the eastern edge of the university’s campus, amidst several on-going construction projects. On one side of the street, Google continues to expand its Cambridge office, and on the other is a building with the MIT-appropriate address of 314 Main Street. It houses a new Boeing R&D center, the MIT Press Bookstore, and the MIT Museum.

The InnovationHQ aims to be a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation at a school where those activities happen just about everywhere. It provides a physical space for students, alumni, and the broader Boston community to gather and collaborate. The space officially opened in July of 2020, but due to the pandemic, students only gained access in fall of 2021. After a few years where virtual communications dominated everything, as the new academic year nears, students are finally populating the space on a regular basis.

What is IHQ?

The IHQ occupies five floors of MIT’s Welcome Center. It is designed to get progressively more specific to students’ innovation needs as the floors rise. 

“When you start on the third floor, you’ll see it’s a very open student lounge, and every floor you come up is a little more sophisticated, a little more mature, so there’s a transition,” said Tim Miano, Executive Director of MIT’s Office of Innovation. 

The seventh floor is home to an open event space called Hack Reactor, which is part of the effort to connect student innovation efforts with the wider community. 

“It is a place where we can convene, not just the MIT innovation ecosystem, but sort of have a convening spot for the Greater Boston ecosystem, the US at a national level, and at an international level. Right on top of the Kendall T stop, this is a place where all these lines of momentum and travel… converge,” said Miano.

In the eight months since it has been open, the Hack Reactor space has already held over 200 events for more than 1,000 total participants, from student clubs to government delegations. 

Why IHQ was Created

MIT built the space to fill an important need.

“In 2012 there was a faculty report on innovation entrepreneurship that identified all of these holes in MIT’s innovation ecosystem,” said Miano. 

As a result, MIT President Rafael Reif launched the Innovation Initiative to foster pathways for university-wide innovation. Originally intended to run five years, the Innovation Initiative lasted nearly double that, before it evolved into a permanent Office of Innovation last summer. 

The building is meant to be a home for student innovation, and to promote diversity in startup culture. 

“MIT has over 50 student clubs doing innovation and entrepreneurship. And before we opened this building in September, they were all homeless. So when we opened this building as a high flex space, we said, ‘If you want to be a resident student club here, you can,'” said Miano. 

IHQ is now home to 25 of these clubs, representing 1,700 students. 

The team also made an effort to invite women and other underrepresented groups to use the space. These efforts are one of the drivers behind an increase in female participation in on-campus innovation activities: it has risen from 30 percent to 58 percent, Miano said.

The last thing we wanted to do… is prescribe and put in place things that we knew five years from now might not make any sense whatsoever.

Room to Change

The malleable spaces are meant to change with the needs of students. From movable furniture to flexible office spaces, the opportunities for students are endless.

“The last thing we wanted to do… is prescribe and put in place things that we knew five years from now might not make any sense whatsoever,” said Gene Keselman, Executive Director of MIT Mission Innovation Experimental. 

For example, the third floor is currently home to an experimental music lab, though based on student interest, that might not still be the case in a few years. 

Everything is allowed to begin here.

The innovation philosophy behind IHQ, and the wider university, is to give students resources rather than hinder creativity with restrictions and rules: “If you put resourceful, smart people in a place together, and you give them resources, you give them support, and you say, ‘Go do whatever you want,’ then you will have success,” said Keselman.

While the IHQ is a high-profile, physical place designed to foster innovation, what happens inside it is largely up to the students. From what startups, clubs, and nonprofits they’re building to what events they’re hosting, the students are in charge. And no one worries too much about duplication, overlap, or what department it might be tied to.

Keselman described MIT as “the most decentralized, evolutionary place I’ve ever been. Everything is allowed to begin here.”