Why do MIT graduates start so many companies? Maybe it has to do with the Institute’s culture of hacking. “For many people outside MIT, the notion of hacking is a bad thing,” says Professor Fiona Murray. “Here, hacking is something we celebrate because it means trying something out, experimenting, understanding its strengths and weaknesses, going back and adapting it. That’s very much an entrepreneurial act.”
The marketplace shows hard evidence of MIT’s entrepreneurial spirit. The MIT Digital Shingle Project tracks hundreds of companies created annually by MIT alumni, and more than 100 start-ups are founded by current MIT students each year. MIT faculty frequently launch companies, too, based on their research (more than 300 patents were issued for MIT technologies last year alone). Just because this is ingrained in MIT’s culture doesn’t mean it goes unscrutinized. On the contrary, the Institute has made itself a lab for studying innovation-driven entrepreneurship.
“MIT has been a pioneer in that research domain for the last 25 years, and in bringing that new knowledge into the classroom,” says Murray, the William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean for Innovation. She says a creative tension powers entrepreneurship at MIT: mind and hand, theory and practice. In a course called Innovation Teams, which she teaches with School of Engineering researcher Luis Perez-Breva PhD ’07 and entrepreneur/ investor Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87, students discuss seasoned founders’ experiences alongside data on effective practices, then design commercial applications for technologies fresh from MIT labs.
Along with Vladimir Bulovic, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology, Murray will co-direct MIT’s soon-to-launch Innovation Initiative. Folded into that initiative will be ways to guide students through the sprawling ecosystem MIT has developed for bringing innovations to market, either by engaging existing companies or starting their own.
For those who choose the latter route, several resources — including a roster of entrepreneurs in residence, and the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, which helps students launch start-ups — are housed in the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, where Murray partners as faculty director with managing director Bill Aulet SM ’94. There’s also a menu of popular courses on the topic offered through MIT Sloan School of Management, the School of Engineering, and the Media Lab; support for new endeavors from the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship; and advice and networking through the Technology Licensing Office, Venture Mentoring Service, and 25-chapter MIT Enterprise Forum. A host of prizes, hackathons, workshops, and clubs provide hands-on experience and a safe environment for mistakes. As Aulet says, “There is no such thing as innovation-driven entrepreneurship without failure. The more you do it, the better you get. MIT wants to time-compress that learning curve.”
It’s not enough, Aulet adds, to implement these resources on campus. “If MIT’s going to have an impact on the world, we need to systematize our entrepreneurial expertise, and then we need to ship it out.” Nearly 55,000 people enrolled last spring in an online course taught by Aulet on the edX platform titled Entrepreneurship 101: Who Is Your Customer? and in August, 47 of those students, from 22 countries, visited campus for a 5-day startup boot camp. And MIT’s two-year Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) has attracted the participation of such cities as Veracruz, Hangzhou, London, Rio, and Moscow, all eager to develop their unique entrepreneurial capacities.
As the Institute works to optimize its own entrepreneurial and innovative capacity, it will continue to expand it. Near the top of students’ wish list is more physical infrastructure for business ideas based on hardware solutions. “The maker spaces, the lathes and mills and 3-D printers, are increasingly in demand,” says Murray. Students have concrete ideas for confronting huge challenges like clean energy and food security, and they’re impatient to begin. “Our students no longer want to wait to have a 20-year career in a large corporation before they can demonstrate impact on the world.”