The Quest for MIT’s Next Billion Dollar Idea


[Editor’s Note: The other day, upon checking Xconomy’s e-mail, we discovered the following message, encoded using quantum encryption. We ran it through our nifty decryption matrix, and at first all we could decipher was the reply-to address—MIT’s Howard Anderson. But then we realized that we’d intercepted the description for a new course that Anderson is teaching at MIT’s Sloan School of Management this spring.]

You are Harrison Ford or Matt Damon and you’ve been dropped into an alien world. Your mission: find the Golden Key which will save the comely damsel and/or unlock the next Billion Dollar Idea from Fortress MIT. You know it’s hidden behind one of the 1,000 doors, each of which is virtually identical. Your time is limited…and evil competitors are racing against you for that exact Golden Key!

What would you do first? Second? That’s exactly what Bill Aulet and I are exploring in an upcoming class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, 15.390A: New Enterprizes. We’ve recruited Ric Fulop, co-founder of A123 Systems, to help, if only because he has actually done it. The alien world? MIT, and not much is more alien than that. 1,000 doors? That’s the 1,000 professors at MIT and their labs. Evil Competitors? Clearly, the venture capitalists and the snarly mega corporations.

First eliminate as many doors as possible—maybe by bypassing the English and Latin Departments. Math? Music? Better not. Remember Akamai and Guitar Hero.

Second, pay attention to the hirsute gaggle outside each of these doors. They are the starving, caffeine-hyped acolytes sometimes called Graduate Students, motto “Will Kill for Skittles.” They speak in semi-intelligent tongues, if only you can decipher them.

As you frantically sprint down this Infinite Corridor, you are tempted to hire guides, but they speak in riddles. They can’t answer direct questions (“which door?”) but can tell you about patent applications. When you open a door, you can query the recalcitrants inside, asking which of their neighboring doors are potent. Beware! They often send you on goose chases—they have a special power called “tenure.”

Behind each door comes encrypted noise, sometimes called Research Papers, most of which give boredom a whole new meaning. They are read only by the Chosen and their mothers—and they are about arcane processes that only give you a hint about the Billion Dollar ideas.

You are tempted to stop and build the ultimate expert system… a supercharged ATM machine into which you could feed these formula heavy scientific papers, and, if you get exactly the right one, billions of dollars would spit out from the bottom. But don’t. It’s an endless sidetrack, and that damsel is starting to worry! Should she have put her faith in the HBS guy who keeps telling her how good it’s going to be…someday?

Should you go to the exact same door that spilled Billion Dollar ideas before? No! That room is too crowded. Maybe look for solutions to The Big Problem…like curing world hunger or finding a parking space on that MIT lot when there are 10 times more permits than available spaces.

Aha! Why not build a team of junior Harrison Fords—and send some only to those colored doors where they speak the Tongue…and reassemble at midnight and trade insights. Can you trust your team? Are there spies? Does someone have a key that was made for one door… but opens another?

Sound like a fun class? Okay, alert the Hasbro boys that we have their next boffo new game, and cue Matt Damon that we have the sequel to Good Will Hunting and his next blockbuster!

Howard Anderson is the founder of The Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He currently holds the William Porter Chair of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow @

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6 responses to “The Quest for MIT’s Next Billion Dollar Idea”

  1. Charlotte HubbertEllen Page says:

    I love this article. I just snorted my coffee I’m laughing so hard. Beyond the excellent imagery, however, is an excellent view of The Hunt for The Big Idea.
    I want to take this class!

  2. Brian Walsh says:

    I miss MIT!

  3. Great stuff (as always) Howard!

  4. John LandryJohn Landry says:

    Great piece Howard.. if I can help lemmeknow.. sounds terrific!

  5. roger pena says:

    being scared of a solution or idea is a problem, being scared to fail falls into this category, and not to take chances is the reasons for some of these comments. With good timely research and efforts of the idea alot of this misunderstanding can be avoided. From my perspective this is why innovation is held back in whatever society!

  6. I have it says:

    I have the next big idea.