Where Einstein Meets Edison

What’s the Rocket Fuel Driving MIT’s Entrepreneurial Engine?

What’s the Rocket Fuel Driving MIT’s Entrepreneurial Engine?

Oct 20, 2010

For every success story, there is a poster child. Given the quantity and magnitude of technologies that have emerged from MIT’s campus over the years, MIT may in fact be the poster child of technology commercialization and entrepreneurship. For example, according to a Kauffman Foundation report “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT,” the combined revenues of companies formed by MIT graduates make MIT at least the seventeenth largest economy in the world.  Akamai, the turbo-charger of data transmission on the Internet, and Terrafugia, an MIT company who recently announced the FAA approval of their “road-able aircraft” (otherwise known as a flying car) are two good examples of technology-based companies to have sprung up from MIT in the recent past.

As an MBA  student at MIT Sloan and the Director of the MIT $100K over the past year, I have seen firsthand MIT’s “special sauce” for helping innovation emerge from its Cambridge campus and land on our doorsteps.

There are several core elements of MIT that exist “under the hood” and supercharge the programs, classes, and organizations which are at the heart of the MIT entrepreneurship engine. First is MIT’s genuine institution-wide goal to bridge gaps between schools. With programs that attract global leaders in business and engineering to one campus, the university consistently shows support for initiatives that act as linking mechanisms, bringing individuals from across campus together. Second, MIT provides governing structures that enable students and faculty to continue pursuing technology commercialization beyond the confines of the lab. This is accomplished with favorable employment arrangements for researchers and unique licensing arrangements between the MIT Technology Licensing Office (TLO) and the labs creating new technology. Lastly, MIT celebrates commercialization and not just research. It is clear that technology created on MIT’s campus is meant to be used for the greater good of humanity and not locked up in a laboratory closet.

These three overarching themes allow the following student-focused initiatives, classes, and organizations to fuel the most powerful entrepreneurship engine on the planet:

iTeamsis a cross-listed class between the School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management. As part of the class, MIT labs submit technologies that they believe are interesting yet commercially uncertain. Graduate students from across the university (both business and engineering) form cross-functional teams and work with the lab to seek out commercial applications, determine a commercialization roadmap, and begin developing industry contacts. Through the iTeams class, students are able to make invaluable cross-discipline connections and generate a deep respect for the challenges of commercializing raw, lab-based technology. My project this year was focused on a sensing RFID technology that could be produced at an unprecedentedly low cost. I worked with a team of mechanical engineers, fellow business school students, and the lab’s “primary investigator” to develop a commercialization roadmap that today is serving as the foundation for future research into the technology. Today, although the class is now over, one of my iTeams teammates (a brilliant Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate) and I are still working on an entirely unrelated smartphone accessory concept that came about during the iTeams class. Thus the net effect of my iTeams project extends well beyond helping an RFID technology find the correct course of future research, it also may one day result in you using a new and innovative product to interact with your smartphone.

New Enterprises is a class that behaves inversely to iTeams. While iTeams focuses on a technology being “pushed” from the lab into the marketplace, New Enterprises focuses on uncovering a market need and “pulling” in technology to meet that need. Students who take this class contribute their own business ideas, pitch these ideas to their classmates, and then vote on their favorites. The output of this activity is the formation of pursuit teams for the classroom’s shortlist of best ideas. These pursuit teams then explore the market, target customer and execution roadmap needed to launch the idea as a real business. Interestingly, many New Enterprises projects become fantastic candidates for MIT’s highly esteemed MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and actually go on to become real businesses. This year, we have teams pursuing ideas in innovative flash-buying concepts, home-owner dashboarding for maintenance scheduling, hand-crank cell phone chargers for emerging markets, and dozens more. What I think makes this class so special is that it is taught by individuals like Howard Anderson, Peter Levine, Matt Marx and Bill Aulet, who are all extremely accomplished entrepreneurs in their own right, and bring their years of expertise and real-life experiences to the classroom.

The MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition has spent the last 21 years providing a launchpad for future entrepreneurs to develop new businesses. The competition provides a safe environment to practice entrepreneurship, develop mentorship relationships, and potentially win the resources that all businesses need to be successful (including over $300K in cash prizes). Over the course of the MIT $100K’s history, it has helped launch companies that have gone on to generate over $3.5B in market value, $700M in venture funding, and most importantly over 2,500 jobs. Notable companies to have gone through the MIT $100K are DirectHit, PollEverywhere, Harmonix, Virtual Ink, Hubspot, Terrafugia, Visible Measures and many many more.  As the director of the MIT $100K this year, I saw the competition bring together engineers and business school students, who otherwise may have never met, to form incredibly powerful start-up teams. If you’re looking for proof, just look at these three teams from last year’s competition who are making incredible strides in their respective businesses today: OnChip Power, OurLark Technologies, and Viztu Technologies. In last year’s business plan contest finale, we thought it would be interesting to see what the world would look like if each of the contestants launched their businesses tomorrow – check out this world through the video we put together.

The MIT Entrepreneurship Center (E-Center) sits at a unique cross-road between the business and engineering schools. Its basic purpose is to provide programs, free space to meet, and support infrastructure for students who wish to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. With programs such as “Entrepreneurs in Residence,” where experienced entrepreneurs keep regular office hours on-site, the E-Center is an amazing place to find the resources needed to take a business idea to the next level. On my first day in the Entrepreneurship Center, I recall hesitantly asking Bill Aulet, the managing director of the E-Center, if I could assemble the MIT $100K Elevator Pitch Contest’s main prop in the center of the E-Center office space: a forty foot rocket ship made of PVC and white felt. Without hesitation he said yes – all in the name of fostering the entrepreneurial spirit on campus (something that the MIT $100K has stood for over the past 21 years). This may seem like a trivial example, but it exemplifies a broader theme that the E-Center conveys, namely that it supports any students or student organizations whose aim it is to enhance the entrepreneurial community in or around MIT.

I have had some amazing experiences in my one year at MIT Sloan, but none more amazing than experiencing the energy around entrepreneurship on campus. The students, administrators, and faculty have created an overarching mindset, a set of passionate student-led organizations, and a series of activities that seem to make the MIT entrepreneurial engine run on rocket fuel.