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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.

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