In January, MIT announced a new MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program that will connect students across the Institute with tailored educational experiences, mentoring, and funding— from $1,000 to $25,000—to test out innovative ideas and hone their entrepreneurial acumen. Led by the School of Engineering in partnership with the MIT Innovation Initiative, MIT Sandbox is flexibly designed to fit within the context of students’ education, research, and other activities. MIT Sandbox will scale up its capacity to serve MIT’s entire student body by building on existing resources such as the Venture Mentoring Service, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, UPOP, the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, the Communications Lab, and D-Lab, as well as MIT student groups such as the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, StartLabs, and many others.
A cohort of seasoned entrepreneurs—representatives of major corporations, as well as individual alumni—have signed on to provide not only financial support but to mentor MIT students hungry for real-world guidance. Students who benefit from the funding by creating successful ventures are encouraged to pledge to give back to MIT or to the MIT Sandbox fund, and to continue to strengthen the program through mentorship as well as giving. Spectrum spoke with MIT Sandbox’s executive director, Jinane Abounadi SM ’90, PhD ’98.
You know the students of MIT very well, having not only been one yourself, but having spent 20 years as a housemaster at MacGregor House. How does MIT Sandbox fit their needs?
JA: I learned from my housemaster days how hard it is for MIT students to navigate all their options without getting overwhelmed. MIT Sandbox looks out for students’ overall well being. If they get to the point where it’s hard to balance this extra work with their course load and research, we can reassure them that they can come back later, and the money will still be here. That’s the thing: in the entrepreneurship world, the message is usually that everything has to be done right away. For students, that can be very stressful and sometimes detrimental. Entrepreneurship success is about the right timing. There is value to taking your time to explore and learn how to solve really hard problems. Some great ideas might come later than sooner in a student journey. MIT Sandbox aims to enable students to figure out the path and pace that’s right for them.
If our students are keen to start a company, all of their MIT experiences give them the building blocks: the relationships, the skillsets, the ways of thinking. And part of MIT Sandbox is helping students learn about what type of people they are. The right thing for them may be to start a company, or to continue to be creative and innovative in a research environment, or to innovate within a big company that has significant resources to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit.
It seems that one of the things you and the mentors can offer students is the perspective of hard-won experience.
JA: When I finished my PhD at MIT, I joined BBN Technologies, a great research lab. It was the late ’90s and it was right in the midst of the dot-com boom, so in 1999 I left to work on a startup. That was my first introduction to entrepreneurship. It was an exciting time and we managed to land a significant big launch customer. Then the bubble burst in 2000, and the funding dried up and the excitement fizzled away. I came back to MIT as a postdoctoral lecturer because I love working with students. After three years of teaching and research, I wanted to get back to the software industry, and eventually I joined ITA Software and then Kayak. Both were stable, later-stage startups primarily focused on how to best position themselves for a great exit, and they both had spectacular exits. After that, I joined a big company, Travelport, where as the senior director of partnerships and alliances and regional product, I was focused on building a strong network of innovative partners, a good number of which were startups. This gave me quite a bit of experience in seeing which models work and which don’t.
I’ve learned that the road to success is filled with setbacks. MIT Sandbox by definition encourages exploration and risk-taking in an educational setting. Of course we hope—and are confident—that we’ll get some great companies out of MIT Sandbox, along with the rich entrepreneurship ecosystem at MIT, but we are not focused on building companies. We’re focused on building people and fostering a supportive community of young entrepreneurs.
How will MIT Sandbox guide students in choosing which projects to pursue?
JA: If a student has a million ideas, we can help him or her think through important questions like: Do other people care about this particular problem? Do you really have a solution, or just a dream? Does it add value to society? What work do you need to complete before talking to prospective customers?
The $1K level is meant to lower the barrier for students to try ideas out. Of course, it’s not just about the money—you have to put a cocurricular plan together to learn the basics of entrepreneurship, from market validation to fundraising. That can be done either through existing classes or workshops, or with direct advice from a mentor. After the initial round, you may focus on other things and dig deeper for better ideas. If you make progress, you can ask for more funding, apply to the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, or enter a competition. By the time you graduate, you’ll have built some credibility to launch a company, if that is what you want to do.
I can tell you that a good number of the students we are working with now, a mix of undergraduates and graduate students drawn from the StartMIT workshop, are planning to move forward. These initial projects range from software apps to commercializing sophisticated technologies. This is an opportunity to push them to think very critically about their ideas.
What do you want MIT alumni to know about this program at its outset?
JA: The idea is not to create another competitive program at MIT. It’s to create a nurturing way for students to choose the journey that is right for them. We want to reach a diverse group of students who have not already climbed into the MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem, as well as to help position those with advanced ideas for raising funds from external sources once they leave MIT. Getting an equally diverse group of alumni to join the mentorship network will be really important, and we’re looking for sponsors that represent many different industries. If it weren’t for the alumni support of and dedication to MIT, this program wouldn’t be here today. I also want the alumni community to support us in spirit: to believe that this program has the capacity to be a game changer for MIT students in multiple ways.