After Escher Exit, MIT Sandbox Aims to Mold More Student Startups

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the quality of deal pitches Polaris is receiving from ventures coming out of MIT.

“The entrepreneurs are a couple years more educated, and they’ve had the experience of raising money, using money, asking for more money,” Nashat says.

Sponsoring Sandbox could give Polaris an early look at startups and entrepreneurs it might invest in, but Nashat says that’s not the firm’s priority. (Sponsors and mentors agree to put students’ education and interests first, among other official Sandbox guidelines. Hard to say exactly how that’s measured, but MIT can remove partners from the program if it deems they violated the rules.) The goals are more about ensuring the environment for startup creation at MIT and the greater Boston area is “healthy and sound,” Nashat says.

Sandbox contributes to MIT having “a very dynamic and open culture around entrepreneurship,” Nashat says. In the past, he says he would speak on campus, and he would feel conflicted when students with good ideas pitched him after the event. He found it difficult to recommend the student drop out of school because the venture might fail, and the person could “end up in a bad way in life, and I’m going to have this karma hanging around my neck,” he says.

Being involved with Sandbox can help resolve that issue. The program is designed to give students an opportunity to try their hands at entrepreneurship as part of their campus education.

“We have to be very sensitive to the academic constraints that they have and the fact that they need to focus on completing their academic requirements and research requirements,” Abounadi says. “We have to be flexible.” (Of course, the program can’t stop students from dropping out of school anyway to focus on their startup.)

An outcome like Escher’s sale makes Abounadi happy for the entrepreneurs, she says. It was also lucrative for her program; Escher said it would donate an unspecified amount of money to Sandbox after its acquisition, following through on a voluntary pledge all participating entrepreneurs sign. But Abounadi insists exits are not her main goal.

“Some of [the participants] will go on to build companies, but some of them won’t,” she says, noting that some students might opt for jobs at large corporations or in academia. “The main thing is that they take what they learned wherever they go next. Ultimately, our measure of success is just how we impact the students.”

[Top photo of Sandbox participants taken by Lillie Paquette, published courtesy of Sandbox.]

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