Where Einstein Meets Edison

A Match Made in MIT

A Match Made in MIT

Sep 14, 2010

If you have heard Joe Barillari speak about his company, Virebo, and MIT’s role in Virebo’s launch, you probably walked away thinking it was a perfect union between two entities. Virebo is a young software startup on a mission to reduce customer costs by tracking and analyzing the usage of printers and intelligently providing important feedback about the points of inefficiency in the customer’s printing infrastructure. Although this business model has been thoroughly tested as a means of reducing costs, there is something unique and remarkable about Virebo’s trajectory, specifically, in Barillari’s ability to maximally utilize university resources at his disposal to secure his first customer—MIT.

Barillari’s story starts as many stories do: as a restless grad student. He was working on a new piece of software called Over-Vu, designed to help academics manage and track large amounts of scientific literature. Unfortunately, to Barillari’s chagrin, Over-Vu’s main purpose was to save time, a resource that most academics expect to be provided for free. As a result, he could not find a path to commercialization for Over-Vu. Later, after commiserating with another graduate student, Barillari stumbled upon another idea: tracking printer usage at companies. This idea was more commercially viable and thus motivated him to turn “nerd commando” with undaunted passion. He was able to produce a working prototype, which he dubbed Virebo, within a week of his vision breakthrough.

After building an alpha of Virebo, Barillari contacted the Deputy Dean of MIT Sloan, Richard Locke, who introduced Virebo to MIT’s Information Services & Technology (IST) group. This meeting yielded one of the most important pieces of feedback for Virebo: tracking toner cartridges usage is as critical as tracking paper usage. At MIT and elsewhere, toner cartridges are generally replaced prior to expiration, when they are 70% empty. This early termination of cartridges wasted time and effort. In addition to providing this feedback, IST recognized Virebo’s usefulness and deployed it throughout MIT.

Barillari also received mentoring support through Venture Mentoring Services – a group of entrepreneurs that hold “office hours” to help MIT students and alumni with their ventures. Barillari recalled how valuable their advice was during Virebo’s early stages. Indeed, he said that the counsel was “better than capital so early on.” In addition, he talked about the non-solicitation aspect of VMS – VMS members do not solicit or attempt to negotiate equity pieces for capital so they are considered to be an honest broker when advising startups.

Overall, Barillari was very pleased with the process of taking his idea from prototype to full deployment on MIT’s campus. He credits individuals at the institute for their openness – he was able to meet with several people in high positions at MIT Sloan and IST without the bureaucracy that one might expect from an organization as large as MIT. MIT/IST was also willing to invest in the utility of Virebo, which provided Barillari with the credibility needed to approach other large institutions. Barillari attributes all of this initial success to the entrepreneurial attitude that is prevalent at all levels of MIT.

Barillari’s key objective while scaling up Virebo was to find customers. Any customer, whether it is MIT or a small local business can provide invaluable feedback about the usefulness of a product. In fact, Barillari went on to say that “all good features of Virebo have come from customer feedback.” Customers that provide critical feedback during the early stages can help startups “get out of the echo chamber.” This type of customer helps to refine the product during the prototyping stages, creating the positive feedback loop necessary to improve the product.

For entrepreneurs looking to start a new company, Barillari’s story highlights several important ways to accelerate success:

1) Leverage institutions (educational or otherwise)

There are thousands of educational institutions throughout the country. If you’re building a web company, make it a point to call one person at an educational institution near you to talk about how your product can help them. If education’s not your thing, find a company to pilot your product and make sure they’re using it.

2) Work with your customers

Barillari would not have stumbled onto the toner cartridge idea without working with MIT. When you have paying customers, you are under pressure to refine and improve your product. You are also given credibility that can be used to increase business. One of the biggest questions enterprise startups hear is: “Who else is using it?”

3) Use the resources in front of you

VMS exists at MIT, but there are hundreds of other resources all over the country that are underutilized. Go to any local business school and find a professor that is willing to help with your startup. You’ll find that they’ll refer you to more resources than you can imagine.

What’s next for Virebo? Barillari sees Virebo expanding beyond printers. His vision is to build “green tech that can pay for itself fast” with “an immediate payoff – if not a few months, over a year.” In the short-term, Virebo will likely grow and help other organizations reduce wasted resources. MIT’s strong local entrepreneurial ecosystem will undoubtedly help build Virebo’s brand, by helping it attract new organizations seeking to slash costs and waste.