Entrepreneur and Professor Mike Smith is keeping America’s oldest university young
Professor and company founder Mike Smith.
With his long career in both academia and industry, Xfund Advisor Mike Smith brings a singularly valuable perspective to his work with Xfund. An engineer by training, he is also an entrepreneur, researcher, instructor, and Harvard administrator.
Currently, Mike is the John H. Finley, Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. From 2007 to 2018, he was the Edgerly Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s largest school. Previously, Mike co-founded the data security company Liquid Machines, which was acquired in 2010 by Check Point Software Technologies. He received his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford.
In addition to being an Advisor to Xfund, Mike was a key supporter in the creation of Xfund almost a decade ago.
In our conversation, he discusses the connections between his work as a founder and academic, Harvard’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and his interest in new approaches to teaching computer science.
As Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, you helped bring Xfund to Harvard. How did it happen?
I’m an academic, but I’ve also worked in industry. I’ve started my own company, so I had realized the benefits that come with understanding what takes place on the business-commercial side of the world. The university was also moving more toward entrepreneurship, focusing not just on students’ intellectual development but also considering how we might facilitate practical experience in this area.
Patrick and I had been discussing the opportunities in this space, and what was taking place on Harvard’s campus — what our students were interested in and where they were trying to go, as well as faculty interest in this type of work.
I thought it was a fantastic opportunity when Patrick came to me and said, “I’d love to do something in this space, but I want to do it in a way that supports Harvard’s academic goals around entrepreneurship, innovation, and discovery. How can we put something together?” I really looked at it as a partnership.
As an institution, we had certainly been approached by other individuals in the venture capital industry. But I think Patrick was the first to consider how a venture capital presence might also align with the goals for students, faculty, and the institution. He was first to come up with an approach that I think has been fantastic for all parties involved.
How unusual was it for Harvard to have supported the creation of a VC firm with a presence on campus?
I think the timing was great, to be perfectly honest. The university was moving in a couple of directions at that time.
Traditionally, there hadn’t been much discussion among the faculty about the practical applications of research with respect to real-world problems. But that perspective was changing. We were hiring more faculty involved in that kind of research, and the university was taking notice. We had also decided that we needed to invest more of our intellectual capital in engineering.
I’m an engineer, so I’m biased, but I believed that if the institution was going to be successful, we should continue to have greater investment in engineering and applied sciences, in ways that would support both students and faculty, as well as many of Harvard’s professional schools.
The medical school, for a long time, had worked very closely with MIT, considering the impact of engineering on medicine. And the business school was certainly one of the big proponents of a stronger engineering school.
All of those factors were coming together at the same time, making an opening for someone like Patrick to come and share his vision from the VC perspective. And of course, we clearly had a track record of Harvard students creating amazing things, and we wanted to see how we might support them.
How would you characterize the venture and entrepreneur community at Harvard?
What I love is that so many of our students and faculty have a very broad definition of entrepreneurship — an understanding that it not only applies to commercial ventures or tech, and that it can have a social impact in the world and address real problems.
This broad view of entrepreneurship, I think, is one of the unique aspects of an institution like Harvard, which has excellence across the board in so many disciplines.
I love talking to students about the different ways they think about having impact through starting a venture, whether it’s a traditional, for-profit venture, or one with a social mission.
You left academia to found Liquid Machines in the early 2000s. How did your time as a founder inform your work when you returned to academia?
Much of my academic research has been informed by what’s taking place in industry, because I’ve seen it. I lived some of it. I certainly brought some best practices from that space, particularly to my thinking about how to run a research group so as to have impact on the real world. I learned how to run a research group that could have impact on what was taking place in industry, without trying to compete with industry.
In addition, I learned that when you’re one of the first people in a company, you do everything. You wear lots and lots of hats. That’s not an experience I got from working in big companies beforehand.
I also learned more about how you go about hiring good people, bringing a group of high-performing individuals together, and moving them in the same direction to have impact. I had some of that knowledge before, but the startup experience strengthened it for me.
My interest in the startup was not to continue to run the business. I had been in the business world before and had chosen to go back into academia because I love research and teaching. With the startup, I was figuring out how I could build the best company, in terms of hiring the best people, so that I’m not doing the work all day long, but I’m still excited about working with them, because we’re all moving in the right direction.
That experience helped me tremendously when I became Dean, in terms of thinking about what we needed to map our organization onto the current times and the most important problems we faced.
What does Xfund bring to the Harvard campus?
I’ll tell you what excites me the most with some of the work that Jadyn, Patrick, and Brandon are doing.
Universities compete with each other on some things — and that’s perfectly fine. But there are other areas where we’re better off building partnerships. Xfund’s work falls under that category. I think our students will learn a tremendous amount with the programs that Patrick, Jadyn, and Brandon are putting together to get students from Harvard interacting with students from Stanford. The culture at each institution and its community is different, but both have a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem.
I’m not sure how we would do that normally — we could have a dean at one institution talk to a dean at the other institution. But that would be rare, and on a more formal, broader basis.
It’s been invaluable to have Xfund bring the organic relationships they have across different institutions, and create programs for our students that allow them to see the perspective of other student entrepreneurs at institutions elsewhere, with different markets around them.
I think it’s really exciting, and I’d love to see more of that cross-campus connection, through Xfund and similar initiatives.
Since stepping down as Dean in 2018, you’ve returned to teaching. How has that transition been? What are you looking forward to now?
I can never seem to do the same thing for a long time. So, I’m very happy to be back in the classroom. I’m also developing a new introductory computer science class right now that I’m very excited about, because I think it’s time for us to re-think how we present the material.
Our curriculum is perfectly good, but I think there’s a different population that could benefit from us approaching the material differently. For example, computation is becoming a big piece of so many different jobs today. My daughter, who I like to use as an example, is a biologist. She uses computation every day. She needs to understand it, but she’s not going to use that knowledge the same way a computer scientist would.
So, I’m considering how computer science can be taught as a competency, like math and writing, that we can all use. This concept has been really exciting to me, and I couldn’t have explored it before. I have the freedom to do so now.
I’m also spending time with the university, thinking through how the university should look in the 21st century, and how we can do in the digital realm what we have historically done in the physical realm. I tell people all the time that you wouldn’t start a university today without thinking deeply about what will be done digitally online and physically in person. It’s all about bringing people together on a campus that will be both physical and digital.
Sounds like you have some big questions to explore and interesting work on your plate.
Originally published at https://blog.xfund.com on January 17, 2022.