As founder and CEO of MassChallenge, the world’s largest startup competition, John Harthorne supports budding businesses through top-notch mentoring, education, office space, and access to funding. The goal is to help high-impact startups—companies that have great potential for high growth that will create jobs and also promise to help people through the services they offer. And he does it all with no strings attached; MassChallenge is a nonprofit, funded through sponsorships and donations, that takes no equity in the fledging businesses.
In 2010, he received nearly 450 entries from 26 countries. Within 12 months, the finalists raised $116 million in outside funding and created 805 jobs. The 2011 competition received more than 730 applications from 24 countries. The same year, President Obama identified the program as one of America’s most effective startup accelerators.
Harthorne credits his success to his MIT training and connections. “Without the MIT network and the experience and knowledge I gained, there was no way I could have launched MassChallenge,” he says.
Harthorne, who earned degrees from Bowdoin College and Humboldt University of Berlin, initially envisioned a career as a diplomat. He worked for a time at the United Nations Association of the USA, but he grew disillusioned by the bureaucracy of the diplomatic field and moved back to his native Massachusetts to run a group that translated German car-repair manuals. His addition of translation memory software slashed the turnaround time from three weeks to three hours. Then he landed a job with the Cambridge digital-security firm
@stake, where he soon led one of the company’s most profitable groups, the training department. “I really thrive on the steep part of the learning curve,” he says.
After @stake was acquired, Harthorne focused on business school. “The process of applying to Sloan was one of the most important activities I’ve undertaken in my life,” he says. What he wanted out of his degree was a chance to learn constantly, have an impact on people’s lives, and empower others. He interned at the global management consulting firm Bain & Company; won the 2007 MIT $100K Business Plan Competition with two others for Robopsy, a medical-devices company; and ran the 10th annual Global Startup Workshop (GSW), the world’s premier student-led entrepreneurship conference. Inspired by GSW, he and a coworker from Bain launched MassChallenge in June 2009.
These days, Harthorne is learning how to motivate people on a nonprofit budget and seeks to expand the contest. The very nature of the work keeps his learning curve steep. “It’s a constant requirement that you reinvent yourself,” he says. “That’s one of the beauties of the startup environment.” He lives in Somerville with his wife, Natalia, six-year-old son, Max, and two-year-old daughter, Yulia.