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From the President: The Engine Revs Up

MIT offers “tough tech” innovators a realistic pathway to the marketplace.

December 20, 2016

MIT’s mission statement directs us to “advance knowledge” and to “educate students.” Yet it also demands more of us: that we “bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” In effect, it is our duty to bring transformative innovation to the world.

The United States arguably has the world’s strongest innovation system; within that, the Greater Boston ecosystem is among the best of the best. The region’s universities and hospitals transform federally funded basic research into world-changing innovations. MIT and other institutions train brilliant scientists and inventors, and inspire many to become entrepreneurs. And in all this, we count on terrific partners in venture capital and the corporate world.

It’s a wonderful story and a wonderful reality!

But from listening to faculty, student, and alumni entrepreneurs as well as corporate leaders, I came to perceive one area of missed opportunity. The fact is that VC funding works beautifully for startups that can reach market profitability, IPO, or buyout in three to five years, but it is not as well geared to support breakthrough technologies built on new science and engineering, which typically take more time.

In fields like energy, manufacturing, robotics, biotech, and medical devices, innovators are finding it extremely difficult to secure the stable funding, space, equipment, expertise, and networks to fully develop their technologies. This struggle itself can needlessly stretch the process to a decade or more. Too often, these entrepreneurs never find sufficient support. That discourages others from trying, leaving many promising ideas stranded.

This is more than a matter of disappointed individuals: since many of them are working on solutions to humanity’s most important problems, if they cannot get their ideas to market, society loses, too.

Looking at this challenge, we saw a clear opportunity to act. On October 26, a few blocks from campus, MIT launched The Engine, an accelerator specially geared for “tough tech” entrepreneurs working on big societal problems. The Engine offers these innovators a realistic pathway to the marketplace through a distinctive package of resources: “patient capital,” affordable local space, access to highly specialized equipment, streamlined legal and business services, and expertise, from prototype to scale-up. Importantly, it will prioritize breakthrough ideas over early profit, help shorten the time it takes these ventures to become “VC-ready,” and create an enthusiastic community focused on delivering new science-based innovations to make a better world. 

Our opening commitment is serious—26,000 square feet and $25 million—and it will expand in both dimensions. We are also investing MIT’s reputation. Ultimately, we hope The Engine will serve 60 startups per year.

To magnify the impact, MIT will seek to attract hundreds of millions in additional support and help make available hundreds of thousands of square feet of space for entrepreneurs in Kendall Square and nearby communities.

The Engine will clearly benefit local startups as well as the regional innovation ecosystem.

And it has the potential to provide very important benefits to society as a whole.

The truth is, when it comes to the most important problems humanity needs to solve—climate change, cancer, Alzheimer’s, infectious disease, and the need to supply enough clean energy, fresh water, and food for a growing world—there is no app for that.

We believe The Engine can help deliver solutions for such intractable problems—solutions that otherwise might never leave the lab—while spawning new companies, new industries, new forms of manufacturing, and new jobs.

At MIT, we like to keep our eyes on the horizon—and we love the race to get there. In starting The Engine, we aim to reach the horizon of new solutions even faster.

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