Dean Frank Doyle is building a whole new kind of engineering school
Dean Frank Doyle of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
Xfund has a natural ally in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), led by Dean Frank Doyle. Frank is also the John A. & Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor at SEAS. He leads the Doyle Group, a research center focused on developing control systems for medical applications and applying a systems biology approach to the study of PTSD and circadian rhythms.
Frank came to Harvard in 2015 from UC Santa Barbara, where he was the Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Engineering, and Director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, a research center affiliated with UCSB, MIT, and Caltech.
Notably, Frank is the first engineer to serve as Dean of Harvard’s engineering school in several decades. He is also distinguished by his interest and experience in translational research — his work on control algorithms aided the commercial development of the artificial pancreas.
Below, Frank speaks with us about engineering’s profile at Harvard, supporting student entrepreneurs, and Harvard’s plans for an Enterprise Research Campus adjacent to the School’s new Allston campus.
How did you become an advisor to Xfund?
In some respects, it almost felt like it came with the job! I came here following Harry Lewis, who was the interim Dean of SEAS, and Cherry Murray, who was the Dean before, and both were advisors to Xfund. Very early in my deanship — I measure it in days or weeks — Patrick reached out. I met with him, and he explained Xfund’s mission and invited me to join.
I was delighted to do so. When I came to Harvard, I recognized that there was an opportunity to do more to connect our students to the private sector, as well as encourage innovation skills, which ultimately can lead to success as entrepreneurs and founders, and in other dimensions. An increasing number of students, both at my previous institution and here at Harvard, have been interested in pursuing startups. It’s the fastest growing sector for our students post-Harvard.
I’ve really enjoyed building a strong relationship with Patrick over my time here. He, Brandon, and Jadyn have been a magnificent team to work with. They’re so attentive to wanting to help Harvard students flourish with their dreams, visions, and ideas. I couldn’t be more excited to be connected with Xfund.
How does SEAS support students interested in innovation and entrepreneurship?
We’ve built a series of curricular offerings around innovation. We also have a Professor of the Practice position that we’re seeking to fill this academic year. The recognition there was that innovation skills were a genuine, pedagogically meritorious competency to build into our curriculum.
But we also want to create other opportunities for students. This is where my partnerships with Nitin Nohria, the previous Dean of the Business School, and the new Dean, Srikant Datar, have been so enabling. Harvard has two incredible marquee programs in engineering and in business, and we hadn’t really leveraged the partnership opportunities in years past.
We’ve built three distinct partnerships, the first at the executive educational level. We have a joint degree in business analytics; previously, SEAS had not had a systematic effort in the executive education space.
The second partnership, which was actually the first out of the gate, was to plan for a joint master’s degree. The idea was to marry our Master of Science with the MBA, not to create a new hybrid degree, but to efficiently combine the curricula from those two degrees and offer the two credentials simultaneously to graduate students.
So far, we’ve graduated three cohorts in this joint master’s degree program, and the fourth will graduate in the spring.
And then the third partnership is our Technology Innovation Fellows Program, with a cohort of 10 to 15 undergraduate students per year. The Roberts Fellows are students from across the entire College, not just from SEAS. The program gives these students access to the Business School curriculum.
I’ll confess that, naively, I first thought this program would be confined to SEAS. But with some wise counsel from several people, including the Dean of Arts and Humanities, Robin Kelsey, I recognized that there was a deeper appetite to learn about technology and innovation across all concentrations at Harvard — not just the engineers, but also the scientists, the social scientists, and humanists.
Harvard has a long history of engineering, but SEAS is the youngest school on campus; it was formally established in 2007. How has the profile of engineering at Harvard changed over the years?
That’s the interesting duality of our program. We’re at once both a very young program, but also a very established program. Harvard has been offering curricula and degrees in engineering since 1847.
In that respect, we’re older than our three-letter neighbor down the street. We’re older than the other engineering programs in the Boston area. We’re the oldest of the Ivy League engineering programs, so we really have a storied tradition.
But we’ve gone through twists and turns, and different kinds of emphases. I think our foundation is our rich history in the applied sciences.
I like to think of it metaphorically as a pyramid, where at the foundation we have the faculty who want to push the boundaries of knowledge by doing fundamental research. That is absolutely a solid bedrock, and it represents our rich history.
In a middle space, we have the faculty who are tinkerers or who like to make widgets. That might be code, materials, or bioengineering tissue experiments. But they’re not necessarily thinking directly of the translation, licensing something, or doing a startup.
The tip of the pyramid is those faculty who want to generate IP, who want to license that tech — maybe to a big company, or via a startup of their own. I think an ecosystem that has a healthy balance across that spectrum is important.
Some faculty may not be interested in direct IP translation, but there’s a growing fraction of the faculty who are building patent portfolios, talking to companies, and having impact through translation. I count myself in that mix. This focus has driven my work as Dean for the past six-plus years, and it’s driving SEAS’ expansion to Allston and the creation of an amazing innovation ecosystem there.
Last year, SEAS moved to its new Science and Engineering Complex in the Allston neighborhood, where a new Enterprise Research Campus is also planned. How will that benefit SEAS and Harvard?
This is a vision that the university has been developing for several years now. It’s not just coincident with our move into Allston a year ago. The Enterprise Research Campus will be our immediate next-door neighbor on the same side of Western Avenue, directly across from the Business School.
So, this new Enterprise Research Campus will be positioned perfectly between SEAS and the business faculty. There will be approximately 1 million square feet in the first phase, which will comprise not only lab-office space for tech ventures but also outposts for big companies and VCs. You might imagine it as a sort of technology park.
There is also going to be housing for the community, which is a pressure that we want to help with, as well as a hotel and conference center. This is currently scheduled to come online by 2024, which means that we’ll have been thriving in our new home for a good couple of years as that comes online. The synergies with the startups we expect to come out of our faculty labs and faculty collaborations will be magnificent.
The proximity of this Enterprise Research Campus is really important to SEAS, HBS, and the university. Plus, we’re not much more than a stone’s throw away from the MIT campus, the Boston University campus, and a medical center that is a life sciences epicenter. It’s hard to imagine another comparable location that’s as ripe for development as this new innovation cluster. The distance between these institutions is measurable in a number of miles you can count on one hand. It really is a very densely concentrated intellectual ecosystem.
What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs?
I’ll tailor my advice to engineers. There’s a mindset in engineering that’s oriented toward translating and solving problems, which is compelling for an entrepreneur. But the part that we don’t typically confront in our curriculum or training is the idea of thinking about the customer — how an idea is going to get to market, how to sell an idea, how to brand an idea, and how to find a solution in that matchmaking between a technology and its ultimate implementation.
This is just as important for engineers. I myself have experienced some similar challenges in getting a product to market, and I’d love to create infrastructure so that future generations of students have an easier time with that.
That’s why I think our programs like the Technology Innovation Fellows Program, as well as the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), are so important. We also have one of the HBS faculty teaching an engineering course this academic year on entrepreneurship. We’re creating an ecosystem where students can find resources and experts — especially now, as we build out in Allston.
What else are you looking forward to right now?
I want to build more connections with Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs on the West Coast. We can take advantage of the fact that we all now, at the drop of a hat, will jump on a Zoom call and have engaging conversations. That wasn’t the case even two years ago.
Now that everyone is proficient at this modality, we can harness that capability to create experts in residence who are virtually in residence, so our students can gain from their wisdom and experience. We have so many alumni on the West Coast who would love to connect to our students, and I know our students are hungry for that advice.
It’s a matchmaking problem made in heaven, and this new tech that we’ve all mastered is one of the tools we can leverage to solve it.
Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on February 16, 2022.