On May 1, MIT’s yearlong suite of opportunities for student arts entrepreneurs culminated in the fifth annual Creative Arts Competition, a $15,000 prize for the most promising arts-focused startup at the Institute. Eight teams, comprised of undergraduate and graduate students from across the Institute, were selected as finalists to pitch publicly to a panel of judges and an audience of peers and mentors. Roots Studio received the top prize, with PicFic, Cherry Stems, and Goons Art Collective receiving 2nd place, 3rd place and “Audience Choice” awards, respectively.
“Seeing the arts put at the forefront of an Institute that is known for its technology and helping build its arts entrepreneurship ecosystem has been a phenomenal experience and is something that Kaitlin [Terry] and I are extremely honored to have been a part of,” says Noor Khouri ’15, a master of science in building technology (SMBT) candidate in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning who co-directed the 2017 Creative Arts Competition, together with Kaitlin Terry, first-year MBA candidate in the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Taking on hegemony, fast fashion, apathy toward climate change, evolving reading habits, and technological challenges of music creation and instruction, the teams represented how art and business can be combined to renew the social fabric. Some teams pitched businesses that focus on ethical ways to source, buy, or sell products (Goons Art Collective, Moo Moo, Roots Studio), while others pitched arts ventures that connect people to each other or the environment (Before It’s Too Late, CherryStems, Synchronize) or that otherwise nurture meaningful artistic experiences (PicFic, Sogima Music).
Khouri says, “What's unique about art ventures is that they are often mission-driven, particularly by tackling pressing problems through the lens of cultivating a shared artistic experience. A lot of the entrepreneurs that we've worked with focus on the community aspect of the arts and are trying to create a space for artists, musicians, and whoever’s involved in what we like to call the arts continuum, to collaborate with one another. The competition finalists are bringing entrepreneurial thinking to a field that has deep heritage and traditions; their challenge is to transform their artistic and passionate visions into sustainable business models for the long-term.”
The 2017 Creative Arts Competition winner, Roots Studio, exemplifies the mission-driven — yet sustainable — model. They digitize art from rural villages and transform it into high-end and storied products, eliminating the burden of a costly supply chain through licensing. Rebecca Hui, CEO and co-founder of Roots Studio, says she first thought of the venture in 2011 while in India “doing work on rural to urban transitions and how we could focus on generating economic growth in rural areas, not just in cities.” She observed, “Artists seem to be the first victims of gentrification and this is also true in rural India. You find people who are cement workers, for instance, and in the evening they are working on amazing canvases. But they don’t consider themselves artists because of the lack of opportunity.” Since 2015, Hui and her team — Macauley Kenney, Genevieve Ang, Ann Huang, Timothy Hui, Pallavi Sen, Kunal Lunawat — have worked with hundreds of villagers across Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. They established design hubs staffed with designers, where artwork is uploaded and made available to retail markets. With over 200 million people in India who rely on the craft sector for their livelihoods, they aim to connect talented rural artists who live below the poverty line to a multibillion-dollar market that appreciates authentic designs. Hui says the $15,000 seed money from MIT makes her “happy and excited that there is this type of alignment” and she sees the funding as a “bridge to financial support for these artists.”
PicFic (2nd place winner) is a publishing platform that optimizes storytelling in the digital age. It’s a workspace for writers and artists to collaborate and create illustrated serialized fiction, called picfics, a format that caters to mobile reading. They aim to help creators spread their stories to a wide community of readers. “We’re reinventing stories for readers, and creating a platform for writers and artists for highest profit and distribution,” say team members Christine Oh, Silvia Park, Jae Lim Chung, and Christian D. Vazquez. This summer they will participate in the inaugural MIT NYC Startup Studio and join the Columbia Startup Lab to further develop PicFic.
Cherry Stems (3rd place winner) wants to do for music production what Instagram did for image editing. This mobile app enables users to “cherry-pick” sounds from their immediate surroundings and turn them into sharable looped beats called stems. Users select any combination of recorded sounds and a beat style. Once created, users can sing or rap over their stems, allowing users with any amount of musical experience to make the most of their creativity.
The “Audience Choice” winner, Goons Art Collective, upcycles vintage clothes by adding politically-charged hand-painted designs and incorporates leftist politics into a novel marketing campaign. Through their clothing line Riot Gear, and their zine Heretic, Goons confronts the problem of mass misinformation in a world of "alternative facts," and represents non-hegemonic identities. It is a protest-focused venture against capitalistic practices, white supremacy, sexism, and other repressive institutions.
Members of last year’s Creative Art Competition winning team, Tekuma, presented the prize money to the winning teams and offered them a glimpse at what the year ahead may hold. Tekuma connects artists and property owners, providing art works for real estate developments. A year ago, they were placing art in Airbnb rentals in the northeast. Marwan Aboudib, CEO and co-founder of Tekuma, says, “Now, we’re working with some of the biggest real estate developers in the U.S. We’ve scaled up. With a new contract, it’s soon to exceed $1 million in revenue. We’ve also raised capital, in total $350,000 … We were able to grow the team — we have 11 with an intern. We have software engineers from MIT who are really passionate about the arts and virtual reality, and combining the creative world with that of engineering, which is amazing. That’s what MIT is all about. … As always, we are still trying to figure things out. Since we won the award, we have also designed a frame. We’ve created an artist portal where artists can upload their works and a curator portal where people can curate a selection of their art works. We’ve built a lot of tech around it. We started to deal with the things that are more business oriented and less passion oriented.”
Since winning the Creative Arts Competition in 2016, Tekuma also created a new division for civic-scale projects, Tekuma XL. “The original vision was to have a network of spaces, and once you have a network of spaces you have a city,” says Aboudib. He offered this advice for this year’s teams as they continue their ventures beyond the competition: “Apply the designer mentality. Your project is never finished. Never be too happy. There is always room for improvement.” Also, he suggests, know when “to put passion aside and start thinking about your numbers. Invest in the business model, talk to your customers, and the more you talk to your customers, the better your business model will become.”
MIT fosters arts entrepreneurship throughout the academic year — from the Hacking Arts festival in the fall to the Creative Arts Competition in the spring. Helen Smith, second-year grad student in MIT Sloan and co-chair of Hacking Arts 2016, says, “Relationships form at Hacking Arts. ... We are trying to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem throughout the year. So teams are meeting and coming out of Hacking Arts with ideas they continue to work on and then ideally bring into things like the Creative Arts Competition.”
Through its startup competitions, mentorship opportunities and makerspace access, MIT is defining the sometime ambiguous term “arts entrepreneurship” in a distinctive way. Lisa Niedermeyer, director of client development at Fractured Atlas, who attended the 15K competition, points out that the word “entrepreneurship” itself gets misused to refer to “small business best practices.” Entrepreneurship, she says, strictly means identifying “what is not in the market and then building a scalable business to fill that gap.” So, it is no surprise that “arts entrepreneurship” has many definitions.
Smith perhaps encapsulates what sets MIT’s approach to arts entrepreneurship apart: “It’s really driven by innovation and the way technology is incorporated into and furthers the arts. The way these ideas come together is not from sitting in a traditional business class. It’s how do we bring something new to the arts that we are passionate about and integrate the classic business concerns. It’s not about pulling artists into a room to teach them business. It’s about pulling people from Sloan, from Course 6, from the arts, from across the Institute and from the community beyond MIT, to collaborate. That’s what makes it stand out—that approach from a technology and innovation standpoint.”