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Classes and academic research help launch companies

A variety of course offerings are devoted to spurring new ventures.
Just some of the companies that have spun out from MIT's work and its people.
Just some of the companies that have spun out from MIT's work and its people.
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Second in a two-part series examining MIT’s entrepreneurial climate. Read part one here.

Over the years, MIT students have created an array of clubs, workshops and competitions to foster entrepreneurship and help those who aim to start businesses. Increasingly, though, entrepreneurship is not just an extracurricular activity but — in many cases — an integral part of students’ academic work. In other cases, student research ends up becoming the core of a spinoff company.

Across the Institute’s schools and departments, a wide variety of classes are aimed not only at fostering the skills needed to start and manage a business, but also at generating or fine-tuning ideas, helping develop them into real-world companies. Many of these classes — with titles such as “Development Ventures,” “Energy Ventures” and “Imaging Ventures” — encourage students to form teams and start developing ideas and business plans over the course of a semester. In many cases, these spontaneously formed teams go on to create actual businesses.

Joost Bonsen ’90, SM ’06, a lecturer in the MIT Media Lab, teaches many such classes and co-directs (with Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Alex “Sandy” Pentland PhD ’82) the Media Lab’s entrepreneurship program. Such project-based classes, he says, exist in all five of MIT’s schools, giving students a chance to “work on truly new ideas,” supported by resources to help turn ideas into real prototypes. “There are classes at every stage of this process,” he says, from brainstorming all the way to production and marketing.

When students — or, for that matter, faculty members — realize they have an idea that might lead to a new business, there are a variety of resources to help move them on to the next step. For example, the Venture Mentoring Service, led by Sherwin Greenblatt ’62, SM ’64, a former CEO of Bose Corp., matches would-be entrepreneurs with experienced businesspeople to guide them through refining the idea, forming a plan and launching a business.

Real-world ‘cool’

For faculty members and students with ideas that may have commercial applications but who need help moving them to the point where they can be spun out into a business, the Deshpande Center can provide resources and some initial funding. Its director, Leon Sandler, says one of the factors that help make MIT such fertile ground for new startups is “a strong culture of looking outside the university — we tend to have a very porous boundary with industry, and with the medical establishment.”

“We don’t have a medical school, yet we spin out all kinds of medical devices,” he says. “We have industry people in here all the time,” which gives students an opportunity to “start to see real-world problems.”

Another important factor, Sandler adds, is the kind of students MIT attracts in the first place. “They like to see technology make a difference,” he says. “Starting a company is seen as a cool thing to do. In many other places, it’s considered very uncool.”

For inventions that come directly from MIT research projects, the Technology Licensing Office handles the process of obtaining patents and finding companies that may wish to license those patents.

Student-led businesses often emerge from traditional academic classes that are not explicitly aimed at business creation. For example, the Department of Mechanical Engineering offers classes in product design; teams that have designed products as a class project have sometimes gone on to form companies. (A recent example was an inexpensive, portable Braille label-maker developed by a spinoff called 6dot).

In other cases, thesis research forms the core of a new startup. Often, Bonsen says, these companies end up becoming collaborations between students and professors who worked together to develop the idea. “Most professors can’t wait for their students to get beyond the basics and be ready to do stuff” that has real-world applications, Bonsen says.

Many successful businesses have been spawned by such student-faculty collaborations, including iRobot, which produces the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner: It was founded by former professor and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Director Rodney Brooks with his former students Helen Greiner ’89, SM ’90 and Colin Angle ’89, SM ’91 (now the company’s CEO).

The MIT mythology

MIT’s proclivity for creating new enterprises from scratch goes back to its beginning, Bonsen points out — including the founding of the Institute itself by William Barton Rogers. “He had this idea, rallied the resources, and made it happen,” he says. “He didn’t let minor things like the Civil War interfere.”

Early MIT graduates founded or built up some of the country’s leading companies, including General Motors (which became the world’s biggest company under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan SB 1895, who provided funding that later led to the founding of MIT’s Sloan School of Management), Amgen (co-founded by Raymond F. Baddour SM ’49, ScD ’51), Texas Instruments (co-founded by Cecil Green 1923, SM 1924), Digital Equipment Corp. (founded by Ken Olsen ’50, SM ’52), and Hewlett-Packard (co-founded by William Hewlett SM 1936).

MIT didn’t conduct its first systematic study of its alumni’s entrepreneurship until the 1990s, when Bonsen led a study that ultimately identified over 4,000 such companies nationwide. That study was updated in 2009 by Edward Roberts ’57, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology, who found more than 25,000 MIT alumni-founded companies worldwide (and that’s only counting companies that were still in business and whose founders were still living at that time).

With such a long history of spinoffs, Sandler says, “you start to build a mythology, a narrative around things that have happened. You have this sort of spirit here about doing things, an environment that encourages and supports people in doing entrepreneurial activities.”

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