MIT Boosts Resources for Entrepreneurs as Startup “Fever” Rages

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“if I want to get ahead in life, I have to start a company.” (It’s a common sentiment among venture investors that there are too many me-too players and too much noise.)

Students today are “all running after internships in tech or starting companies or being part of [startups],” Gupta says. “What I would love to know, and don’t have stats on, is how many survive.”

Part of the reason for the rise of startup culture is how quickly tech companies can be launched. It’s much easier for MIT students, faculty, and staff members to turn their ideas into businesses these days, thanks in part to the various places they can go for help. But the downside is “it can be frustrating for people trying to identify those resources,” McCarthy says.

Malena Ohl, a graduating senior who studied chemical and biological engineering, co-founded a healthcare technology company, Stello, with fellow students during an MIT hackathon a year ago. She says her company received assistance from several entrepreneurship programs on campus, including the Venture Mentoring Service, the Trust Center, StartMIT, and the MIT Sandbox Fund. The Institute’s entrepreneurial groups seemed disorganized when she arrived on campus four years ago, she says, but things are “definitely improving a lot.”

MIT Entrepreneurship Organizations
A sample of key campus resources:
MIT Technology Licensing OfficeManages patenting and licensing of intellectual property created on campus and helps spin out companies. Existed in its current form since 1986.
Martin Trust Center for MIT EntrepreneurshipFocused on entrepreneurship education and providing expertise, connections, and a workspace for entrepreneurial students. Founded 1990.
MIT Venture Mentoring ServiceA free service that pairs volunteer business mentors with students, staff, faculty, and alumni working on startups. Founded 2000.
MIT Deshpande Center for Technological InnovationProvides research grants and other help to MIT faculty. Founded 2002.
MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship ProgramHoused within MIT Media Lab, the program offers several courses that aim to turn ideas and prototypes into commercial products and services. Founded 2006.
Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership ProgramRuns courses and activities designed to help engineering students develop leadership, communication, and other skills that will be useful in future jobs with startups or in entrepreneurial initiatives at big companies. Founded 2007.
The Legatum Center for Development and EntrepreneurshipOffers a fellowship program, seed grants, research assistant positions, and events to support innovative ventures benefiting the developing world. Founded 2007.
MIT Innovation InitiativeHelps connect campus student groups, programs, and centers focused on entrepreneurship, as well as helps create educational programs, research initiatives, and physical spaces. Founded 2013.
StartMITTwo-and-a-half-week course that exposes students to startups and helps them refine their innovative projects. Founded 2014.
MIT Startup ExchangeThrough a database, events, and setting up meetings, it connects startups that have MIT ties with big companies scouting emerging technologies or potential partnerships. Founded 2014.
MIT SandboxProvides seed grants, mentorship, and educational activities for entrepreneurial students. Founded 2016.

The MIT Innovation Initiative is trying to make it easier to navigate campus entrepreneurship resources. And leaders of such programs already communicate and collaborate in some ways, McCarthy says. Her organization, for example, will refer constituents to other helpful campus resources.

“We try not to duplicate what other people do,” says Roman Lubynsky, the mentoring service’s program director. “We’re not competing.”

But there are some overlapping offerings between the various programs on MIT’s campus, their leaders say. And there used to be more competition between them, Aulet of the Trust Center says. But “today I think there is terrific cooperation between all of them,” he says. “We get together on a regular basis.”

It helps that the Institute doesn’t fund most of MIT’s entrepreneurship organizations, says Leon Sandler, executive director of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, which provides research grants and other help to MIT faculty. That means campus entrepreneurship groups must fend for themselves with fundraising, but the silver lining is they’re not all fighting over the same pot of money. In recent years, the Deshpande Center’s annual operating budget has hovered around $1.5 million and its staff has remained about three people, but it oversees more grant projects now, Sandler says.

Teaching People to Fish

MIT’s decentralized support system for entrepreneurs is key, Romulus Capital’s Gupta says, because it allows startups to form and grow organically on campus—enabling would-be entrepreneurs, but not driving their activity. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Gupta thinks MIT is doing a good job. “Look at the VMS; look at the Trust Center,” he says. “They are great resources that are not really trying to impose anything. They’re just trying to be available.”

Ohl, the graduating senior and budding entrepreneur, agrees. The campus resources enabled her startup to grow faster, she says, but the emphasis from administrators and faculty was still “firmly on education.”

“They even say, ‘We don’t pick winners. We want to establish you as a leader,’” she says.

Still, at least one observer sees campus entrepreneurship groups as a superfluous step in a young company’s development.

“Both MIT and Harvard tend to place their respective ‘entrepreneurship development centers’ at the center of startup conversations,” says Lux Capital partner Bilal Zuberi, who has lived in both Boston and the Bay Area and invested in startups in both places. “Stanford doesn’t work that way.”

At Stanford, Zuberi says in an e-mail, students and faculty are “more directly engaged with the broader startup ecosystem outside the campus, from entrepreneurs and startups in the area to VCs, angel investors, and key opinion leaders.” The result, he says, is “a more seamless and successful transition out of campus and into the real world.” (That culture, however, has also led to criticism of the university.)

In any case, it’s hard to argue with MIT’s history of spinouts and alumni starting companies after graduation, from big tech firms like Bose, iRobot, and Akamai Technologies, to newer startups like Accion Systems, Grove Labs, and Formlabs. As of 2014, there were more than 30,000 active companies founded by MIT alumni, employing 4.6 million people and generating nearly $2 trillion in annual revenue, according to an MIT study released last year.

But Aulet says startup formation can’t be the most important metric for administrators and leaders of campus entrepreneurship groups. Otherwise, the school would become more of an economic development engine than an educational institution, he says.

“We teach people how to fish,” Aulet says. “We don’t catch fish. That’s not our job.”

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