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CSAIL launches entrepreneurship initiative

Aims to help students turn computer science ideas into successful technology startups
On Tuesday, Feb. 5, CSAIL kicked off a new entrepreneurship initiative with a talk by Meraki co-founders and former CSAIL graduate students John Bicket and Sanjit Biswas. The CSAIL entrepreneurship initiative aims to help students turn great computer science ideas into successful technology startups through a hands-on, project-based subject that will allow students access to capital, mentorship and time to pursue great ideas while they’re still in school.

Researchers at CSAIL, founded 50 years ago as Project MAC, have brought the world time-shared computing, public key encryption and the World Wide Web. They have also spawned over 250 companies, from 3COM, RSA and Lotus Notes to Akamai, iRobot, Meraki, ITA Software and Rethink Robotics. In an effort to cultivate the next generation of successful technology companies, Professor David Gifford is leading a new course that will guide students through the process of starting a successful company with insight from venture capitalists from Google Ventures, Greylock Partners and Matrik Partners.

In their talk, Bicket and Biswas described the history of Meraki, from the Roofnet project at MIT CSAIL to bootstrapping the business from the sales of their first product, and scaling up to over 350 employees.

In November 2012, Cisco announced plans to acquire Meraki, an industry leader in cloud networking for $1.2 billion in cash. Meraki, which is credited with developing new technologies for managing the ever-transforming and growing IT industry, will allow Cisco to provide its customers with a new generation of cloud networking, device and security solutions.

Meraki grew out of research started at CSAIL by three graduate students: Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas, CTO John Bicket and VP of Product Management Hans Robertson. Biswas, Bicket and Robertson, the three co-founders of Meraki, were all PhD candidates at CSAIL who worked on a networking project called RoofNet with Professor Robert Morris.

While the project was initially focused on mesh-routing algorithms, the team ended up developing a production quality network that they ran independently in Cambridge from 2002-2006. While running RoofNet, the team came to the realization that “software could handle a lot of the complex network configuration that made traditional networks hard to deploy and manage,” Biswas explained.

When they founded Meraki in 2006, the team further built upon the concept of using software-based systems to manage complex networks, developing real-world products and solutions especially for businesses and other hard to handle markets.

Biswas explained that the initial positive reaction to their research inspired them to take the leap into bringing their research from the lab to the marketplace in the form of a new company.

“During our research project we figured out how to go from our initial prototypes built from expensive PCs with wireless cards to a system-on-chip design that fit on a single circuit board,” he said. “Once we started sharing the idea with other people, we saw there was a lot of excitement, so we decided to put our Ph.D.s on hold to try and build an initial product.”

During their tenure as graduate students at CSAIL, Biswas, Bicket and Robertson found support and inspiration from the lab’s faculty members, who provided the foundation for their future success.

“Our Ph.D. advisor Robert Morris made the original RoofNet project possible, and taught us how to think clearly about complex technical problems. Professor Frans Kaashoek and Professor Hari Balakrishnan also helped create the PDOS (Parallel and Distributed Operating Systems) and NMS (Networks and Mobile Systems) research groups at CSAIL, which were a fantastic environment for us to explore ideas,” Biswas said. “Our core engineering team all spent time in their research groups.”

Biswas encourages current CSAIL students to follow in his footsteps and offers some sage advices to those thinking of becoming entrepreneurs.

“We were lucky to have started Meraki with so many of our friends who we met at MIT CSAIL. Startups are an intense experience, and can be a lot of fun if you're able to figure out problems from first principles together,” Biswas said.

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