In March, at the high-energy conclusion of the MIT $100K Competition's ACCELERATE Contest, Sam Magee — coordinator of student arts programs for the Arts at MIT — announced the inauguration of a new prize. Starting this spring, in addition to the $100,000 prize for best business plan and other specialty prizes conferred by the judges of MIT's $100K Competition, contestants can vie for the $10K Creative Arts Competition: $10,000 to be awarded for the best arts-focused business plan.
The aim, Magee said, was to reward the best business idea "with arts at its core." Unlike other entrepreneurial plans, which develop innovative ideas in fields such as emerging markets or life sciences, "the goal of the proposal [must be] to make a critical impact on the arts." An example that Magee cited from past competitions — one that would have qualified for the arts prize if it were incubating today — is Harmonix Music System, the MIT-spawned company that gave rise to the wildly successful Guitar Hero and Rock Band music games.
The $10K Creative Arts Competition brings more attention to the arts at MIT and highlights the intense culture of artistic excellence at the Institute. Approximately 80 percent of students come to MIT with prior training in the arts; close to 70 percent play music at an advanced level; and half of all students enroll in arts courses.
Last year saw the establishment of MIT's new Center for Art, Science, & Technology (CAST) with a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. And the Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of volunteer alumni and friends, recently celebrated 40 years of leadership in support of the arts at the Institute. As MIT President L. Rafael Reif recently wrote in Spectrum magazine — produced by MIT's resource development office — "the arts have never been more integral to the life of MIT or more deserving of our focus and attention." The $10K Creative Arts Competition recognizes and rewards the extraordinary innovations that are happening in the creative industries at the intersection of business, technology and the arts in the greater MIT community.
Given the momentum that the arts have been gaining on campus, it isn't surprising that following the March announcement, submissions began to pour in. According to Magee, "We received a total of 40 submissions, and were pleased that of these, 20 were strongly arts-focused." The competitors ranged widely, from a company that refashions waste textiles into new clothing and accessories to one that helps architects incorporate artistically inspired designs into solar energy solutions. The business plans were evaluated according to six criteria: viability, impact on the arts, innovation, the maturity of the project, the team members and the timeline for implementation. Finally, with the list of nominees narrowed to nine, a jury of MIT-affiliated artists, architects, curators and alumni convened in late April to review the entries.
"It was a great group of judges with a variety of experience in business, entrepreneurship, design and the arts," said jury member Eran Egozy SB '95, MEng '95, a co-founder of Harmonix. "The challenge was to find a company that seemed to have a very viable business strategy as well as a direct impact on the arts. Some companies seemed to have a more solid business plan with less of a direct focus on the arts, whereas others who did have a direct focus on the arts seemed to have a more challenging business case."
After two-and-a-half-hours of intense discussion, the jury picked their winner. Mediuum, the brainchild of MIT Sloan School of Management graduates Kimberly Gordon and Shambhavi Kadam, will receive the first-ever $10K Creative Arts Prize. According to Egozy, "Mediuum was the standout company that seems to have both ... a believable business model, and a direct impact on producers and consumers of art." Magee concurs: "Mediuum had a great website and a great plan," which swung the jury their way.
"Mediuum is moving art from paper and canvas onto digital screens," as the company's $100K proposal explains. The digital consumer, who has demanded and now enjoys instant universal access to movies and music, has heretofore lacked the ability to find, explore and display visual art with the same flexibility. As their introductory document explains, "We combine an online marketplace of exceptionally high quality work by the world's most talented artists with an easy-to-use platform that transforms any screen — from tablets to flat screens to projectors — into an art frame." Tech-based features protect the artists from theft by disabling all of the common means of pirating images, such as printing, copying, and screen capture.
According to Gordon, the CEO of Mediuum, "Shambhavi and I started thinking about the company and validating the idea at the MIT Founders' Skills Accelerator last summer." That accelerator, started by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, is open to MIT students and graduates, and takes only 10 teams per program cycle. Both Kadam and Gordon received the Howard Anderson Fellowship for Entrepreneurship, a coveted award among Sloan students.
The $10K Creative Arts prize will give a major boost to Mediuum, not only financially but strategically. Gordon said the cash will help them pay for things that are "already in the pipeline," but more importantly, "Coming from MIT, this prize establishes the company at the intersection of art and technology." She added, "We are very grateful for and excited about the Creative Arts Prize as part of the $100K."
On the evening of May 15, friends and supporters crowded into Kresge Auditorium for the conclusion of this year's $100K competition. The roar of MIT thundersticks, in cardinal red, greeted the favorites as they gave their final three-minute pitches. Amid tumultuous applause, Kim Gordon and Shambhavi Kadam took the stage to accept a very large, and possibly not-legal-for-tender, $10,000 bill — with their digital portraits on the front.
Magee took the stage to thank the jury for their hard work and to award the prize he announced back in March. "I look forward to offering this prize again next year," he said.