MIT Boosts Resources for Entrepreneurs as Startup “Fever” Rages

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories examining entrepreneurship on MIT’s campus and beyond.]

[Corrected 10/4/16, 9:33 am. See below.] In 1901, 40 years after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded, alumnus and inventor William Nickerson co-founded the company that would become Gillette. MIT graduate William Shockley co-invented the transistor in 1947 at Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1957, MIT Lincoln Laboratory veterans started Digital Equipment Corp., which built some of the first minicomputers.

Yet the first entrepreneurship class wasn’t taught on MIT’s campus until 1961.

It was called “New Enterprises” and was taught by MIT alumnus and successful entrepreneur Richard Morse, says MIT professor Ed Roberts, who has studied the Institute’s entrepreneurial impact for over 50 years.

Since then, MIT-trained entrepreneurs have created thousands of companies. And the research university has gradually built up an immense (some might say fragmented) support network on its Cambridge, MA, campus for nurturing the next generation of company builders. MIT now offers 60 entrepreneurship courses; around 20 student entrepreneurship clubs; over 10 organizations and programs dedicated to providing resources and guidance to aspiring entrepreneurs (see table later in this story); a handful of entrepreneurship prize competitions and hackathons; and a culture of actively encouraging entrepreneurship—which hasn’t always been the case, some campus leaders say.

“Companies were spinning out of MIT forever,” says former MIT Technology Licensing Office director Lita Nelsen, an MIT alumna who retired from the office this year after three decades working there. Over the course of her career, the school’s approach to supporting entrepreneurship evolved from “incidental to purposeful,” she says.

It wasn’t until the past decade, some MIT officials and outside venture investors say, that students’ interest in startup activity and the supportive attitude toward such endeavors on campus—particularly from administrators—reached their current heights.

When MIT senior lecturer Bill Aulet was working toward a master’s degree in business and entrepreneurial marketing at MIT around 1993, he wanted to hold a panel discussion on campus featuring three successful entrepreneurs. But he got pushback from MIT administrators, who told him to “tone it down,” he says. “They would not sponsor it and did not want it on campus,” Aulet says.

He says campus leaders feared upsetting big companies like IBM, where Aulet had worked for 12 years, because events like the one he was planning might “tempt the employees they sent here to leave the womb and become entrepreneurs (like I did),” he writes in an e-mail.

“At an administrative level, there wasn’t a lot of love for entrepreneurship,” he says.

Bill Aulet

Bill Aulet

After his one-year program, Aulet went on to help start two companies and help turn around a third, before returning to MIT. He’s been a senior lecturer for a decade and has led the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship for seven years, succeeding long-time managing director Ken Morse. During his tenure at MIT, Aulet has watched administrators’ demeanor toward entrepreneurship change dramatically from when he was a student. “It’s been a progression, but it really picked up, I would say, over the past six or seven years,” Aulet says, adding that the shift wasn’t his doing. “It’s just because it’s become a very hot topic, entrepreneurship. They saw what was going on.”

Playing to the “Tech Revolution”

There are bigger trends at work here. The 2008 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession led to widespread job losses and pushed more people to create their own jobs by starting new companies. At the same time, Apple’s iPhone ushered in a new mobile technology era and a boom in tech startups that have raked in billions in venture capital and exits. More of the nation’s brightest graduates began choosing Silicon Valley over Wall Street.

In response, leaders at MIT and higher education institutions around the country have beefed up their campus entrepreneurial resources. Xconomy has chronicled such efforts, which are often championed by top university leaders.

For example, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank—a former U.S. commerce secretary—made entrepreneurship a key piece of her agenda and has supported initiatives such as new startup accelerators and workspaces on campus. Former University of Washington President Michael Young aggressively pushed commercialization of campus research in recent years, and the school has also built … Next Page »

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