The first speaker at the Tuesday evening meeting of the MIT Entrepreneurs Club in early May is Pat, a former corporate CFO who is here to talk about ways to find new investors for the rock-climbing gym he plans to expand to a second location.
Pat has no MIT connection, he says, other than his friendship with an MIT alumnus who has invested in his business and invited him to the meeting. But that doesn’t matter to the E-Club members–mostly MIT undergraduates, grad students, and alumni who convene every week. They listen to Pat’s presentation, ask detailed questions about his insurance and business plan, and offer suggestions and contacts.
Pat could be called an old-fashioned entrepreneur, one who must rely on his own resources when trying to meet potential business contacts. But the future of entrepreneurship–the MIT style of entrepreneurship–is embodied by the second speaker that evening, Ian MacDonald.
MacDonald is a student in the Leaders for Manufacturing program, a partnership among the Sloan School of Management, the School of Engineering, and industry, in which companies supply funds, internship opportunities, and expertise to students who are studying to become marketing and project managers in manufacturing businesses. MacDonald is at the E-Club meeting to test his presentation of the business plan he and his teammates have entered in MIT’s annual $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. “It’s an environment where you can get asked hard questions that are not devastating to your future progress,” MacDonald says, because the people in the room aren’t venture capitalists whose decisions on whether to fund a proposal could determine its fate.
By the time MacDonald asks E-Club members for help, he and his teammates have already made use of MIT’s extensive entrepreneurial resources. MacDonald’s $50K team, Nanocell Power, formed in a class called Innovation Teams, in which students create marketing plans for MIT technologies. I-Teams is a collaboration between the Sloan Entrepreneurship Center, the student-run Venture Capital and Private Equity Club, and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation in the School of Engineering, which funds research that could be promising for industry. The technology behind Nanocell Power is a process for manufacturing a key component in fuel cells that makes them smaller and cheaper. Yang Shao-Horn, a mechanical-engineering professor, developed the technology with the help of two Deshpande Center grants. I-Teams students have regular access to professor-inventors and to industry mentors who help improve their marketing and business plans. The class also makes use of the Technology Licensing Office (TLO), where teams meet with licensing officers to learn about MIT’s intellectual-property rules.
So MacDonald arrives at the E-Club meeting well prepared. It’s little surprise that a week later, Nanocell Power is named first runner-up in the $50K contest. The team wins $10,000, office space, and, almost certainly, an edge when it comes to attracting financing and getting its product on the market. MacDonald is part of what many people call MIT’s “entrepreneurship ecosystem.” Over the last decade, dozens of organizations, courses, awards, and seminars have sprung up at the Institute, turning what was often a serendipitous route to the marketplace into a more formalized process. Today MIT offers support to everyone from high-school students to retired alumni on everything from developing ideas to preparing for an initial public offering, in cities as far flung as Boston and Dubai.