MIT Boosts Resources for Entrepreneurs as Startup “Fever” Rages

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closer relationships with industry, such as opening a collaborative research center that puts students alongside Boeing engineers. [An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly referred to Young as the current UW president. We regret the error.]

Meanwhile, Stanford University has also made moves in recent years to enhance its offerings for prospective entrepreneurs. Stanford students founded the nonprofit StartX accelerator in 2009, but it didn’t have formal ties to the university until 2013, when the school and its affiliate hospital pledged $3.6 million over three years to StartX. The university also formed a small startup investment fund with the accelerator.

And Harvard University has tried to bolster and unify its entrepreneurial activities under the Harvard Innovation Lab, which was launched in 2011 and supported by the university’s president, Drew Faust.

At MIT, President Rafael Reif has also pursued new entrepreneurship efforts since he took the helm in 2012. Those include launching the MIT Innovation Initiative in 2013, which in part aims to better connect campus student groups, programs, and centers focused on entrepreneurship, as well as help create new educational programs, research initiatives, and physical spaces. The results so far include an entrepreneurship and innovation minor (for undergrads) launching in the fall; a 200,000-square-foot nanotechnology research and fabrication building currently under construction; and StartMIT (launched in 2014 as Start6), a two-and-a-half-week course that exposes students to startups and helps them refine their innovative projects.

Krishna Gupta, an MIT alumnus and managing partner with Boston-area venture firm Romulus Capital, sees universities’ flurry of investments in innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives as a bid to compete for the best students.

“Everybody is caught up in this fever,” Gupta says. University leaders are saying “we want to be part of this tech revolution. I think MIT is sort of playing to that.”

The Institute’s latest move is a renovation and expansion of the Martin Trust Center office. The center—founded in 1990 by Roberts, the long-time technology management and entrepreneurship professor—is open 24/7 to students from any discipline working on projects and startup ideas. It was often “bursting at the seams” in its former configuration, says Greg Wymer, the center’s marketing and communications manager. He declined to share how much was spent on renovations, but the 10-month project was clearly a significant investment.

In addition to tacking on more space and amenities (see photo below and this photo slideshow), center officials wanted to make it look and feel like a real-world startup office, says Tommy Long, the center’s chief of staff. “Our old space was great but did feel like work spaces and study rooms,” Long says. “There was quite a bit of uniformity. We’re trying to switch that up.”

Photo by Jeff Engel

Photo by Jeff Engel

To get ideas for the redesign, the team visited accelerators, co-working spaces, and offices of startups and big tech companies, says Trust Center program coordinator Renee Lawlor.

The Trust Center avoided most of the cliché trappings of tech startups—there are no foosball or ping-pong tables. “And everybody shot down my demands that there be a hammock,” Wymer jokes.

The refurbished Trust Center does evoke a startup vibe, despite being housed in an academic building (MIT Building E40 at 1 Amherst St.). The open desk space, quirky but comfy furniture, walls that can be used to doodle notes or sketch out math equations, and café area for spontaneous creative discussions—all of those things have become staples in today’s tech startup offices and incubator spaces.

“A lot of our students want to start companies out of school,” Long says. “We wanted to give them a little bit of a taste of what a startup environment is like.”

Entrepreneurship Is a “Disease”

Gupta, the venture capitalist, says MIT has always been a “hub of entrepreneurship and startup culture,” but forming or joining a startup is more popular these days than when he was an MIT student from 2005 to 2008. “Half of my class or more still went into finance and consulting,” he says. “It was only after ’08 that that changed.” He adds, “It’s a cyclical thing.”

Lita Nelsen

Lita Nelsen

Lita Nelsen’s experience underscores that point. When she was getting her MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the late 1970s, most of the courses were geared toward “finance theory” and working on Wall Street or at Fortune 500 companies, she says. Few classes were focused on entrepreneurship, which disappointed her. (Nelsen’s first job after graduating from MIT in the mid-1960s was as a chemical engineer with her professor’s spinout company, Amicon.)

“But as the technology part of MIT started to be known for these companies spinning out and starting to influence even the development of the region, the MBA students started self-selecting to come to MIT for technology-based entrepreneurship,” she says. “And the Sloan School responded, and now the entrepreneurship and innovation track of the MBA program is by far the most over-subscribed.”

Another sign of the explosion of interest in starting companies: increased demand for the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, a free service that pairs volunteer business mentors with entrepreneurial students, staff, faculty, and alumni. In 2005, 83 people applied to the program, says Roberta McCarthy, the organization’s operations manager. That number grew to 132 in 2010, and 230 last year. In response, the VMS has boosted its fleet of mentors by a commensurate amount, McCarthy adds.

Yet, with any cycle comes a downturn. We’re probably at the zenith of the current startup zeitgeist—or perhaps just past it.

“Entrepreneurship” has turned into a buzzword, says Louis Goldish, a senior venture advisor with the VMS. There are plenty of companies being started that “do not create value” and many aspiring entrepreneurs who probably aren’t cut out for it, Goldish says.

“I believe entrepreneurship is like a disease—either you have it in your genes or you catch it from somebody who does,” Goldish explains. “I fear we’re trying to turn some people into entrepreneurs who have neither the genes, or the disease” won’t take, he says. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds. “I really believe that if somebody has the urge to do it, and can pay the bills, they ought to.”

MIT has always had a culture of nonconformity, Gupta says, but he worries the increased emphasis on entrepreneurship is moving toward conformism—the idea that … Next Page »

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