The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and its flagship delta v accelerator program prepare aspiring student entrepreneurs to launch business ventures when they leave MIT. For three months each summer, select student teams work to make their visions viable—consulting with mentors, attending simulated board meetings, drafting business plans, studying finance options, and conducting market research. At the beginning of the school year, delta v graduates present their work to potential investors at Demo Days at MIT and in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area.
More than three-quarters of the 76 companies the accelerator has launched since 2013 are still in business (or have been acquired). Overall, the accelerator has helped its companies raise more than $151 million. Participant companies produce myriad products, including a smart device that monitors birth control pill consumption, a virtual reality program that promotes cognition and mental health in the elderly, and a trailer that can be towed by motorbike to provide ambulance service in remote, developing regions.
Whatever the product, the Trust Center focuses on helping MIT’s makers make their companies work. Here are a few examples.
With a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, Carlos Castro-González could have worked for a telecom company or designed the newest mobile phone. But, he says, “Solving medical problems seemed more meaningful.”
So, as a postdoc at MIT, Castro-González joined the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium (today MIT linQ) a health innovation partnership that would connect him to his three company cofounders: Ian Butterworth, research engineer in electronics at MIT, Álvaro Sánchez-Ferro, a Madrid-educated physician, and Aurelien Bourquard, a Swiss biomedical engineer.
Together, the four developed the technology that launched Leuko Labs—a noninvasive portable device that measures a patient’s white cell status and relays the measurement to the cloud, where the data are processed and transmitted to the health care team. Low white cell values, a typical side effect of chemotherapy, can leave patients unable to ward off infection, potentially leading to life-threatening—and costly—hospital readmissions.
The team won a spot in the 2016 delta v accelerator, where they found many of the tools they needed to succeed. “After our summer at the Trust Center, we knew that if our technology was sound, there was definitely a market for it,” says Castro-González. “The Trust Center provides you with all the things you need to become an entrepreneur.”
Founded in 2018, Leuko Labs currently has nine full-time employees in Boston and Madrid, Spain. The company closed out its seed round of financing earlier this year. Castro-González estimates Leuko Labs’ device could save an average cancer center $50 million or more each year.
Rebecca Hui MCP ’18 concedes she was an unusual candidate for the delta v accelerator—but she never once felt out of place. “It was fantastic,” says Hui, whose company, Roots Studio, digitizes the work of artists who live in isolated and distressed regions and licenses those images for consumer products sold in the developed world. “Coming from a cultural space, it was invaluable for us to steep in an environment focused on marketing, manufacturing, and securing funding. The Trust Center forced us to become concrete and take shape.”
An urban planner by training, Hui came to MIT in 2015 after creating and running Toto Express, a school on wheels in India. That project brought teachers to students in rural Bengal villages who were struggling with school attendance. The experience heightened Hui’s appreciation for native art and fueled her desire to share that beauty with the world— and to offer indigenous artists a living wage.
Hui’s original plan had Roots Studio digitizing the artwork, printing the images on notebooks and posters, and then distributing those products. Her dorm room was overflowing with notebooks when she started at the delta v accelerator in 2017.
She says the accelerator helped her realize that print products were not the right business track to pursue. “Our core assets were the images and the trust we’d built with the native communities,” she says, noting that the Trust Center mentors “changed the way we thought about process and scale.”
Today, Roots Studio licenses production to companies with scalable manufacturing and existing supply chains. The business has eight full-time employees, more than 40 field workers, and collaborates with more than 1,200 indigenous artists in India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and other regions. The startup also pays artists from 5 to 20 times what they can receive for their work at home.
One long-term company goal, Hui says, is to revive art and craft forms in danger of disappearing. “Many of the artists we meet believe their art forms will die with them,” she says. “We’ve given some of those art forms a market and a future.”
In 2017, Nicholas Harris PhD ’17 and lab partner Darius Bunandar PhD ’19 decided to take a class on entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. They were in the early stage of incorporating photonic components into computer chips that would enable those chips to significantly outperform conventional chips. The pair believed their technology could have widespread applications for deep learning and artificial intelligence.
“We were running into the logical end of Moore’s law,” Harris observed, referring to an early prediction linking the shrinking of transistors to ever-more powerful computer chips. “We thought the introduction of photonics could continue that progression.”
While at the Martin Trust Center, the pair (together with Lightmatter cofounder Thomas Graham MBA ’18) took advantage of the workspace and mentors to prepare for the 2017 $100K MIT Entrepreneurship Competition— which they won. “As scientists, Darius and I had learned to value hard skills, like doing math and solving physics problems,” says Harris. “At the accelerator, we learned the value of building relationships, negotiation, and dealing with people. It was an excellent preparation for the $100K challenge.”
The trio launched their company in December 2017, naming it Lightmatter. The not-yet two-year-old startup has 30 employees and has produced two early chips—the most recent containing over a billion transistors. An early round of financing netted Lightmatter $11 million. Last February, GV, a venture division in Google’s parent company, Alphabet, invested another $22 million in the fledgling venture.
“We’re planning to share a preliminary version of our product with big cloud providers,” says Harris. “And shoring up our engineering and business structures. We should be ready to get to market in the next few years.”