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Accelerating startups, the MIT way

MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator — which focuses on ‘disciplined entrepreneurship’ — helps student teams build innovation-based startups.

Startup accelerators — programs that provide financial and other support to early-stage businesses — have sprouted across Boston, and the nation, over the past decade.

Add to this list MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator (GFSA), a summer program that provides teams of MIT and, now, international student entrepreneurs with the skills and wherewithal to commercialize their innovations. By practicing what GFSA organizers call “disciplined entrepreneurship,” the teams have demonstrated substantial progress in their businesses — and show no signs of slowing down. 

Initiated last year by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to accommodate 10 MIT startup teams, the 12-week accelerator this summer expanded to include six international teams — believed to be a first for an accelerator in an academic setting. One goal is to help the global teams use their newfound knowledge to foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem in their homelands, organizers say.

From June through August, the 13 GFSA teams — seven from MIT and six international — built their startups in the Martin Trust Center, receiving monthly stipends and earning additional funding for meeting predetermined business milestones. They also had free range in MIT’s labs and shops to innovate, and received business mentorship from MIT’s entrepreneurial community.

Through extensive testing of the commercial viability of their innovations, the teams ended up with finished prototypes, revised business plans, managerial and advisory boards, and corporate partnerships, among other things. MIT holds no equity in these companies.

“We took these student founders through a rigorous educational program that teaches them how to use [MIT’s] disciplined entrepreneurship techniques,” says Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center. “More importantly, we focused on developing student skills, instead of the specific venture they are working on now, so they can be successful throughout their whole entrepreneurial journey.”

The startups presented the GFSA experience results at Demo Day, held as part of MIT’s entrepreneurship festival, t=0, during the first week of September. The international teams — from Canada, China, Germany, Russia, Scotland and Turkey — were selected through competitions at their home institutions. The MIT teams were chosen from a pool of roughly 100 applicants.

Tapping into MIT’s resources

Many teams used MIT’s labs and shops to build prototypes. Popular destinations included MIT’s machine shop, the Lab for Engineering Materials (LEM), the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab and the International Design Center (IDC). On the business side, the teams learned from entrepreneurial alumni and professors, as well as the peer-to-peer mentors, venture coaches and entrepreneurs-in-residence available through the Martin Trust Center’s network.

Engineers behind New Valence Robotics (NVbots), an MIT spinoff, used the LEM, IDC and GEAR Lab to tweak their commercial product, a 3-D printer that prints wirelessly from any device and includes an automated robotic arm to remove the printed items, allowing for rapid, consistent printing. They also simplified and reduced the cost of the printer compared to today’s models, which require intensive training.

With connections made through the GFSA, NVbots has partnered with several public schools in Boston to bring its modified printer — patented through MIT’s Technology Licensing Office — into classrooms to teach schoolchildren about 3-D printing. The aim, the co-founders say, is to introduce future engineers to the growing phenomenon of 3-D printing early on — and to help market their machine.

“Those interested in science and technology disciplines, who will be tomorrow’s movers and shakers, are in school right now. Their future tool will be 3-D printers, and it’s our printer they’ll be using,” says mechanical engineering graduate student Alfonso “AJ” Perez, co-founder and CEO of NVBots.

Teams also had access to MIT talent. Shireen Taleghani MBA ’13, CEO and co-founder of 6Sensor Labs, may have honed her business acumen at the MIT Sloan School of Management, but when it came to building her startup’s prototype — a portable sensor that detects gluten in food — she recruited MIT engineers.

During the GFSA, Taleghani and her team interviewed roughly 500 potential customers, receiving feedback that helped the engineers tweak the prototype — in MIT’s machine lab. Mentors then helped the team steer the business in the right direction, Taleghani says.

“There’s a lot of talent and mentors at MIT, so it was great to be able to tap into that resource,” she says. “We came in with an idea and some assumptions. We had to unpack all these assumptions, and we really approached the product in a new, rigorous way.”

Unpacking assumptions

The concept of “unpacking assumptions” — testing expectations about how your product will sell — is a strong focus of the GFSA and aligns with MIT’s style of entrepreneurship education, according to GFSA organizers. And it’s something that helped several GFSA teams create better products and business models.

Uniiv, a startup from McGill University in Montreal, developed software — currently being piloted at McGill — that creates an interactive, color-coded visualization of a student’s full academic program. It’s designed to help students keep on track, not overlooking or forgetting about taking courses they need to graduate.

But Uniiv came to GFSA with a completely different concept for its software. After a month of market research, surveys and mapping of revenue streams, Uniiv discovered that its first idea — a crowdsourcing platform for information on universities — just wasn’t commercially viable, says CEO Thibaud Marechal, a McGill student.

“We did a ‘pivot,’ as it’s called at MIT, and went for something more reliable and more practical,” he says. “When we started, we were just developing tools we thought could sell. That’s not how you do things: We learned you really have to know who your customers are and why they would be willing to use this product. Then, you design all your technology specifications. That really helped.”

A similar thing happened with ALPrint, a startup from Scotland. The co-founders — engineers and avid skiers who hail from Edinburgh University and Heriot-Watt University — came in with the idea to develop 3-D printers for developing countries. 

But in-depth market research done at the GFSA helped the team realize that no profitable market existed for such a printer. So they changed course and began speaking with ski-shop owners, ski-boot manufacturers and podiatrists, among others, and decided on using 3-D printing and 3-D scanning to make customized insoles for ski boots. They’re now bringing this idea and their custom 3-D printer — which they built from scratch at the IDC and LEM — to Colorado and Edinburgh University.

“We’re engineers, not business students, so we generally had no understanding of how the business side of things works and how to start [a company],” says Chris Balmer, co-founder and CEO of ALPrint. “So understanding how it all works, having a customer base, and having a business plan that’s considerably more substantial is great. It was a bit of a game-changer.”

Balmer says he’s returning to Edinburgh University with hopes of uniting business and engineering students — much like what he’s seen done at MIT. Similarly, Marechal says his team is returning to McGill to help foster the entrepreneurial ecosystem and design entrepreneurial programming. “Everyone should be doing this,” he says.

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