John Harthorne cofounded the MassChallenge startup accelerator in 2009 with a simple goal: to connect high-impact early-stage entrepreneurs with the resources they need to be successful, no strings attached. The roots of the accelerator were planted during his first week on MIT’s campus in 2005.
“I went to a campus mixer at Walker Memorial,” Harthorne says. “First I met an engineering student bringing solar energy to sub-Saharan Africa. Then I met a scientist removing arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh. I told them I wanted to be a consultant, and I felt so ashamed.”
Today, the Boston-based MassChallenge is the largest startup accelerator in the world. It has helped launch more than 800 startups, giving rise to more than 6,500 jobs, and raised more than $1.1 billion in outside funding. The nonprofit also runs satellite accelerators in Israel and London.
The accelerator provides resources through an annual competition that selects 100 early-stage startups to participate in a four-month mentorship and training program. At the conclusion, MassChallenge distributes $1 million in funding, awarding up to 20 startups grants of $50,000 or $100,000. MassChallenge, which does not take any equity or revenue from startups, is funded by a collection of nearly 150 corporate, foundation, and government sponsors.
“MassChallenge is rooted in the MIT ethos—go after the biggest challenges in the world,” Harthorne says. “It would not exist without MIT, which prides itself on an almost moral obligation to save the world.”
Harthorne’s route to MIT was circuitous. After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1995, he got a master’s degree in Berlin and worked briefly at the United Nations in New York. He then returned to Boston, where he translated automobile repair manuals from German to English.
After working at an Internet startup during the dot-com boom, Harthorne moved with his wife, Natalie, to Russia before he matriculated at Sloan, where he was part of a team that won the 2007 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, an inspiration for MassChallenge.
Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, cofounder of MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, has been a strong supporter of MassChallenge from the outset. “In 2014, Desh asked us, ‘Are you happy with only 600 startups? Shoot for 10,000, then aim higher,” Harthorne says. “He inspired us to get serious about changing the world, not just one or two communities. I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do.”