MIT is widely known as a top breeding ground for entrepreneurs, whose ventures have collectively grown into a colossal driver of the world’s economy. Increasingly, MIT is attracting and grooming entrepreneurs who are motivated, first and foremost, by their desire for impact, and who seek opportunities in some of the world’s most challenging markets.
Cases in point: Three companies incubated at MIT are among the 10 ventures that Techstars has announced will comprise their first Impact accelerator: Base Operations is being called “the Waze for crime” in emerging markets; Nigeria-based MDaaS Global builds and operates medical diagnostic centers; and Graviky Labs converts air pollution into safe, high-grade inks.
Techstars is highly prestigious and notoriously competitive, with accelerator cohorts generally boasting a one to two percent acceptance rate. Techstars Impact, based in Austin, Texas, is reporting an acceptance rate even lower than one percent. The new accelerator, announced last October, is the first Techstars program to specifically back for-profit, mission-driven founders who are building technologies to solve pressing social and environmental problems.
The accelerator’s managing director Zoe Schlag says: “(S)ince Techstars launched 10 years ago, we have had a deeply held belief that some of our biggest global challenges also represent some of our biggest opportunities.”
That’s a driving belief shared by many MIT-supported entrepreneurs. Three principals of the accepted ventures, Cory Siskind, Soga Oni, and Genevieve Oni, for instance, were all awarded fellowships with the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, which empowers students building ventures with high potential for impact in the developing world. Besides tuition, travel, and prototyping support, the fellows also receive a targeted for-credit curriculum, mentorship, advising, and the peer support of an incubator-like community.
“When Techstars first announced they’d be launching an impact accelerator, we got very excited,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the Legatum Center. “We hoped we’d become a natural pipeline for them, and help to strengthen their developing world presence, so it’s thrilling to see that hope realized twofold in their very first cohort.”
In addition to the Legatum Center Fellowships, Base is supported by MIT's Sandbox Innovation Fund and MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiative. MDaaS is also supported by the PKG Center, the MIT-Africa program at MISTI, and the IDEAS Global Challenge. Graviky Labs is supported by the MIT Media Lab.
The teams will spend the next two months in Austin and then present their work during a Demo Day in August.
During the four years she worked in Mexico City, Cory Siskind, who just completed a combined MBA/MPA program at MIT Sloan and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, grew frustrated by the lack of transparency around crime. As a consultant, she gathered intelligence to help ease her clients’ transitions into complex markets, but figured there must be a more efficient way to visualize this crucial information.
Siskind met Nick Gomez, a senior studying business analytics and computer science at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. As a native of Bogotá, Colombia, where he was exposed to high crime rates at an early age, Gomez strongly identified with Siskind’s mission. He joined her as CTO, and together they built Base Operations, which aggregates information from several sources including crowdsourced reports, news and social media, government statistics, and partner data, then provides users with real-time maps and tools to help them safely navigate the city. The platform is free to the public, but companies can subscribe to a specialized security manager version which uses proprietary data to solve complex security challenges.
Base Operations is now backed by several VC firms and angels, and was noted in a World Economic Forum article as one of the “startups that will shape Latin America’s future.” Base Operations launched its free, social impact version (available for iOS and Android) in Mexico City in July 2017, and has plans for international expansion. They will be piloting the subscription version, Base Enterprise, with select clients this summer.
Oluwasoga “Soga” Oni MS '16 was inspired to build an equipment services venture when his father, a medical doctor in Nigeria, showed him a room where he kept his broken equipment at the small hospital he owned. This is a common problem in developing countries, where nearly 40 percent of medical equipment is out of service. Not only is functioning equipment difficult to access financially, it also rarely comes with the support required for installation, maintenance, and repairs. Soga wondered if there was a market-based solution to this problem.
At MIT, as Soga began planning his venture, he met Genevieve Barnard Oni an MBA/MPA candidate at MIT Sloan and Harvard's Kennedy School, who had also observed the medical equipment challenge while working in Uganda. She began helping him with his venture, took on increasing levels of responsibility, and eventually became a cofounder. (They also got married last year.) Their company, called MDaaS Global, initially focused on procuring affordable refurbished equipment which could be rented, leased, or purchased, then providing free installation, staff training, and flexible options for ongoing service support.
More recently, MDaaS Global has pivoted to focus on building and operating tech-enabled diagnostic centers. Their first center, which opened in November 2017 in Ibadan, Nigeria, is equipped with a digital x-ray, ultrasound, ECG, and a full lab, and is staffed by 12 employees including a doctor, a nurse, a radiographer, and two lab scientists. By leveraging a vertically integrated supply chain, MDaaS Global is able to source equipment and set up diagnostic centers for 60 percent less than their competition. Crucially, their model enables them to build scalable healthcare infrastructure in lower-income, peri-urban, and rural areas that rarely have access to higher-level care. Since launching, the first center has served over 2,500 low- and middle-income patients. They plan to open five new centers over the next 12 months.
During a break from his studies, Anirudh Sharma SM '14 returned to his home in Mumbai, India, and was struck by how quickly the soot in the air accumulated on his T-shirt. Sharma already knew that breathing in these pollution particles could lead to lung damage, cancers, and host of other health problems, but the deep black color also reminded him how carbon-rich the material was. Perhaps there was a way this air pollution could not only be captured before it enters the environment, but also converted into a safe and valuable product.
Back at MIT, Sharma formed Graviky Labs, and began exploring this opportunity in earnest. While participating in a workshop in India supported by MIT Global Startup Labs, he met and recruited one of his cofounders, Nitesh Kadyan, to oversee electronics and AI. Nikhil Kaushik also joined as the business lead, and Nisheeth Singh took over technical development. Together, they developed a system that captures particulate matter from the chimneys of diesel generators, treats the matter to remove heavy metals and toxins, then converts the matter into high grade ink (a technicological overview can be seen in a video the team produced for a Kickstarter campaign).
Graviky has since piloted their technology in Hong Kong, London, and Berlin, and has built a community of thousands of artists and early business adopters of this new recycling. Next they hope to deploy their capture technology in the most polluted urban spaces, in collaboration with diesel generator companies who are interested in reducing their emissions. They’re also exploring collaboration with government that would allow them to conduct research to evaluate their impact and help improve their system. Graviky has been featured on TED Global, Forbes' 30 under 30, National Geographic, BBC, and VICE.