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Training MIT’s “Innovation Diplomats”

Program provides students with resources and guidelines to explore global innovation ecosystems.
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MIT mechanical engineering undergraduate David Dellal spent a good portion of his summer in Paris studying what makes France’s innovation ecosystem tick.

With guidance from the Innovation Diplomats, or “iDiplomats,” program launched through the MIT Innovation Initiative, Dellal interviewed government officials, academics, corporate managers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists while networking at various city innovation events.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, Dellal says the experience opened his eyes to seed funding, the laws regulating innovation, startup culture, and how government policies impact entrepreneurs, among other things. “You really see how everything gets put together,” says Dellal, an MIT junior.

Each year, hundreds of MIT students travel abroad to conduct research through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Global Entrepreneurship Lab, and other programs. The new iDiplomats program aims to transform the experience of students traveling abroad with advice on how to be unofficial “innovation diplomats” for MIT.

This involves providing students with skills on how to represent MIT, analyze innovation ecosystems, and engage key stakeholders who can help take innovation from early stages to final products: entrepreneurs, risk capital providers, government policymakers, universities, and corporations.

Participants receive a stipend for travel and expenses, as well as academic credit. Upon returning to MIT, they write reports on their regions’ innovation ecosystems.

Apart from learning about global innovation hubs, the students also become better representatives of MIT’s own innovation ecosystem, says Fiona Murray, the Bill Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative. Murray heads up iDiplomats with Phil Budden, a former diplomat for the British government and now an advisor to the Innovation Initiative and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“The iDiplomat program puts an innovation lens to students’ international experience,” says Murray, also an associate dean for innovation at MIT Sloan. “It allows them to understand the places they’re going along a different dimension that emphasizes innovation as well as other cultural differences. And it’s an ideal opportunity to engage MIT alumni and other key stakeholders in focused discussions of innovation and entrepreneurship. It also gives the students a way of representing MIT in a particular way, so they can talk about what makes the innovation ecosystem special here.”

The program was piloted last summer, with three participants, including Dellal. Given the pilot’s success, 28 iDiplomat students, both graduate students and undergraduates, traveled to 18 countries across Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa this year.

Higher level of thinking

Before heading abroad, students attend three workshops, held during April and May. These workshops detail innovation ecosystem frameworks developed by MIT researchers including Murray; Scott Stern, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management; and Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Murray and Budden develop these frameworks in more detail in a class they teach on entrepreneurial ecosystems.

In these iDiplomat workshops, students are provided with the program’s approach to collecting innovation-focused data — such as metrics on university patent output, governmental policies and programs, and venture capital resources — through interviews and other means.

Part of the diplomacy training includes teaching students interviewing skills, says Bailey Richert, a research assistant for iDiplomats and MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP). Richert assists iDiplomat students while they’re abroad — helping students learn, for instance, how to craft their own interview questions and think on their feet.

“They come out of the program with higher-level thinking skills,” Richert says. “They have an increased understanding of how to do interviews, interact with stakeholders, and make connections that will last for a long while.”

As many iDiplomat students are aspiring entrepreneurs, the program also emphasizes the benefits of engaging with all stakeholders, Budden says. “Just because you want to be an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to the other stakeholders in an ecosystem — [such as] the universities, governments, or MIT alumni at huge corporations — especially as they may buy the product you come up with,” Budden says. “That’s the balance in the iDiplomat program’s approach that I see as so important.”

MIT Sloan student and entrepreneur Julius Tapper spent his summer in Nairobi, Kenya — a rising hub of entrepreneurship and innovation — researching government support for education for his education-loan startup.

Thanks to the iDiplomat guidelines, Tapper was comfortable reaching out to government and university officials, and attended several innovation-focused events, including President Barack Obama’s Global Innovation Summit. From this, he gained new perspective on the challenges of launching a business and commercializing products in this ecosystem.

“It’s easy to get excited about a gadget, but if want to understand how this gadget emerged, it’s important that I talk to research institutions or talk to who runs the patent office here, or look at what large corporations are doing to enable this groundswell of emerging startups,” Tapper says. “Rather than focusing on the actual end product and output of innovation, looking at the precursors and understanding that landscape helps you be more cognizant and get a fuller picture.”

Sharing knowledge

Students may also continue their iDiplomat research into the fall. Dellal, for instance, is continuing his project, focusing on a public bank that invests in startups and a tech cluster developing south of Paris. Fresh from Kenya, Tapper is analyzing the reasons behind the low patent output among Nairobi’s universities.

Students may also have the opportunity to present their research.  Last year, Dellal presented his ongoing work on Paris’ ecosystem to the French ambassador to the U.S. during his visit to Boston. “When things like that happen, we want to jump on the opportunity to share the knowledge students are bringing back,” Richert says.

In turn, the student research helps organizers of REAP, MISTI, and other international MIT programs better understand the innovation ecosystems where students regularly travel, Budden says.

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