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Rampant Entrepreneurship

MIT teams foster business success.

William Barton Rogers would be pleased. Since he founded MIT, the university has faithfully cultivated a passion for pragmatism among students and faculty. This in turn generates entrepreneurial zest. A 1997 BankBoston study shows that the Institute’s graduates and faculty had by 1994 started 4,000 companies providing 1.1 million jobs, with $232 billion in annual sales. A new survey directed by Edward Roberts, chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, reveals that by 2001 almost 8,000 MIT alumni had contributed to new-company starts.

“It’s always been this way at MIT,” says Bill Hecht ‘61, SM ‘76, CEO emeritus of the MIT Alumni Association. He credits this success to smarts, persistent innovation, and a desire to work on interesting problems.

Among MIT alumni’s earliest companies are Arthur D. Little, one of the country’s first industrial-consulting firms, founded in 1886, and the engineering firm Stone and Webster, which dates from 1889. More recent pioneering companies include Bose, established in 1964, and Intel, which was founded in 1968.

Many ideas sparked in classrooms and labs are transformed into firms by colleagues from diverse disciplines who find strength in teamwork. Two newer companies – Akamai and iRobot – illustrate the application of MIT’s inter-disciplinary ethos to business.

Streamlining the Internet
Tom Leighton, PhD ‘81, professor of applied mathematics at MIT since 1982, founded Akamai in 1998 with the late Danny Lewin, SM ‘98. Today Akamai handles up to 15 percent of all Internet traffic, routing upwards of 100 billion hits each day.

“MIT’s culture – to work across departments and disciplines, from students on up – is exciting and productive,” says Leighton, the head of the Algorithms Group in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Akamai’s chief scientist.

Akamai was born when Leighton and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students teamed up on a parallel computing project. “We were interested in large-scale network problems, where N equals infinity,” says Leighton. At the time, the distributed-networks concept was still unproved. “But we believed in it.”

At the core of the company’s $210 million success are systems programmers working side by side with mathematical theoreticians. “The systems side has the critical expertise in practicalities,” Leighton says, “aided by the theorists’ forethought.” The result? “Our platform can handle quantum leaps in size without requiring rebuilds, because the system was designed with the big N in mind.”

Robots for Home and Defense
Like Akamai, iRobot was founded by a student-faculty team that had worked together at MIT before venturing to market. CSAIL director and Panasonic Professor of Robotics Rodney Brooks cofounded iRobot in 1990 with Helen Greiner ‘89, SM ‘90, and Colin Angle ‘89, SM ‘90. Brooks is iRobot’s chief technical officer. Greiner serves as chairman, Angle as CEO.

Known for Roomba, a Frisbee-shaped vacuuming robot, iRobot has also created PackBot Tactical Mobile Robots for the military and recently introduced Scooba, a floor-washing robot for the home. (For a look inside a Roomba, see “Hack”)

“Robots require tight integration of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science,” notes Angle. “On top of all that, these devices have to be sold at the right price, which means we have to understand manufacturing and materials issues from a cost-benefit perspective.”

To keep things humming, iRobot’s founders sometimes trade disciplines. “We don’t work only in our own specialty,” notes Greiner. “We all got our hands dirty when we first started the company, using principles from engineering, computer science, and biology to create the initial robots.”

Persistence helps, too. The company enjoyed its first profits in 2004, when sales soared to $95.5 million. By 2005, iRobot had sold 1.5 million Roombas.

“MIT’s rampant entrepreneurship inspires people like me to try something really different,” says Angle with a smile.

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