Skip to Content
From the president

The Engine revs up

MIT’s pioneering support system for “tough tech” startups is flourishing—and set to expand.

August 24, 2022
MIT President L.Rafael Reif
Simon Simard

A signature MIT quality is the drive to make a positive impact. It’s the essence of Mind and Hand. It’s central to our mission statement: “to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” And it’s obvious across the Institute, from the palpable intensity in the Infinite to the Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects featured in this issue to the startups that stream out of our labs each year. 

But around 2015, we began to recognize a structural obstacle to the development of a certain class of high-impact ideas. Following the legendary era of Bell Labs, the US had developed an innovation system incredibly efficient at bringing new digital ideas to market very fast—things like Dropbox or Airbnb. But the US did not have a good system for developing ideas based on new science. 

As a result, many bold concepts—the kind that could make a serious difference on sustainable energy, climate change, or human health—were getting marooned in the lab, because there was no good system to support their development all the way to the marketplace. Turning a brand-new piece of science into a world-changing technology that is optimized, tested, and ready for manufacture at scale can take more than a decade, longer than venture capitalists can reasonably wait. 

We call ideas like these “tough tech.” And in 2016, we decided it was critical to launch a new model of startup support that nurtures such high-impact ideas and speeds them into the world—while also helping our regional innovation ecosystem flourish and grow. With this guiding concept, we set out to build The Engine, just a few blocks from campus.

From modest beginnings in a single space in Central Square, The Engine is now helping 44 startups—and counting—move from prototype to scale-up through its distinctive package of “patient capital,” affordable local space, access to highly specialized equipment, streamlined legal and business services, technical expertise, and community. Demand is growing so fast that The Engine will open an additional space close by this fall, more than doubling its footprint and its potential.

What sets The Engine apart is a very MIT emphasis on impact: in assessing candidate companies, it prioritizes breakthrough answers to big problems over early profit. From the startup that pioneered a way to spot covid surges through testing municipal wastewater to a serious strategy for delivering carbon-free fusion energy, The Engine is home to a portfolio of potential that feels quintessentially MIT.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.