Innovators in the fields of materials chemistry, online care, natural language processing, social robotics, and venture capital shared their founders’ journey and how they made impact along the way during a panel discussion at StartMIT’s Innovation Night on Jan. 11 at the MIT Media Lab.
Led by moderator Kym McNicholas, an Emmy Award-winning anchor/reporter/producer and entrepreneur, the cast included MIT faculty members Regina Barzilay, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Biological Engineering; and Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences; as well as Donna Levin, co-founder of Care.com, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management; and Katie Rae, founder and general partner at Project 11 Ventures.
Common themes of passion and timing emerged throughout the conversation as McNicholas asked the panel about topics related to risk, research, inspiration, and failure.
For Belcher, risk wasn’t a factor when she decided to direct her career into the idea of genetically programming organisms to grow into electronics and batteries — a proposal that was met with much skepticism when she was a young professor getting her start. “I didn’t think of it as risky at the time. I thought ‘this is the only thing that I want to do.’” Since then, she’s applied her accomplishments to other fields she’s never explored before, such as cancer. “You’re going to run into obstacles along the way, but you learn these aren’t failures, these are learning experiences. Not everyone’s going to agree you. If more people don’t agree, it’s probably a better idea. You keep going.”
Like Belcher, Barzilay followed her passion by taking her core research focus of natural learning processing in a new direction after undergoing treatment for breast cancer, when as a patient, she was surprised to learn that data science and machine learning were not utilized as part of cancer care in the U.S. “The technology used on Amazon to recommend products was much more sophisticated than what we have today in cancer care,” she commented. Barzilay set about on a new journey and, in collaboration with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Barzilay and her team built a system that takes breast pathology and automates the data analysis in a new way with a high level of accuracy. The team is using deep learning to analyze mammogram readings with the goal of using this data to make predictions which humans currently cannot do.
Shifting the focus to timing, McNicholas turned to Breazeal, a pioneer in social robotics and the founder and chief scientist of Jibo, which recently introduced the world’s first social robot for the home. When asked about the moment the research went from the lab to commercialized product, Breazeal said, “I didn’t know when I was starting this work that I would be an entrepreneur, but over time, watching technology, watching the cloud computing revolution, watching the mobile computing revolution, and thinking the elements are coming together. All of these really hard subfields were starting to get to the level that you could start building on that to create this new kind of medium, and when you think about a social robot, it’s a new kind of medium for social communication and interaction. So it was the readiness and now was the time to jump in. It was always kind of back there in my mind. Timing is everything.”
Further exploring this theme, McNicholas asked Levin how to know when you have the right timing. The co-founder of Care.com answered, “You don’t want to be too early. For us, the technology existed to find people online and make matches, but it was a highly fragmented market and therefore an opportunity.” Care.com is now the world’s leading online site for helping families find and manage family care — a notion many people questioned as viable when Levin and her partners started pitching the idea. “Who would ever go online to find care for their loved one? We decided to do something about that. Every member of the team believes he or she is going to change the world. It’s hard for others to compete with you, if you believe you’re going to change the world.“
Sharing the perspective from the venture capital side, Rae spoke about taking the leap over and over again. One of her early leaps included the decision to leave her job at Microsoft to start her own firm and pursue investing in early-stage technology and software companies where she works side-by-side with founders to increase their rate of success. “I always thought of myself as in service to the idea of the entrepreneurial team and that has led me all along the way.” She continued, “Being an early-stage investor, my role is often to say to the founders, ‘You’re onto something amazing. Do you see the progress you made? Have you met this awesome person?’ My role is to keep that inspiration alive. I’m there to suggest, to present opportunities and collisions.”
On the topic of failure, Levin offered, “It’s not ‘if’ you fail; of course you are going to fail. It always feels like failure until it’s a success. The important thing is to keep going.” To which Breazeal added, “I think resiliency to failure is important. I don’t view failure as failures. I really do view them as something that helps make me smarter. You also have to learn to distinguish thoughtful critique, which is so valuable, from just ‘squashing.’ You have to trust your gut, it’s OK not to know how, you’ll figure it out.”
Concluding the discussion, McNicholas asked the panelists about the greatest lesson learned to which Barzilay said, “The process I am privileged to observe is taking things that are impossible to do and translating them into the real product that impacts people’s lives. It’s important to find problems which impact the bigger world and at MIT we’re really privileged to have this capacity.”
McNicholas offered the final parting words and advised the audience of aspiring entrepreneurs to “never let what you don’t know or have never done before get in the way of achieving your dreams.”
Innovation Night was the capstone event of StartMIT, an Independent Activities Period workshop aimed at exposing students to the basics of entrepreneurship. Over the course of the two-week program, undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs heard various viewpoints of the entrepreneurship journey from pioneers to recent alums.
Prior to the panel discussion, guests had the opportunity to meet alumni entrepreneurs and innovators during a Startup Showcase and demo session to learn about early-stage ventures from MIT. In addition, EECS department head Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, welcomed the audience and introduced The Engine – MIT’s new accelerator focusing on providing support for the biggest and most transformative technology-based ideas which require a longer time to commercialize.
Following Chandrakasan on stage, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, offered the evening’s opening remarks on the innovative “antidisciplinary” research happening at the lab. A longtime entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Ito spoke of the lab’s approach to learning — Projects, Peers, Passion, Play — commenting that “this is a lot of the spirit of MIT and it’s the spirit of entrepreneurship. The best startups have all four of these and a lot of what we’re doing at the Media Lab is instilling the values that we need in entrepreneurship so that we will hopefully spin-out many entrepreneurs.”
Developed by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, StartMIT is supported by the MIT Innovation Initiative and chaired by Chandrakasan.