Tanmay Chaturvedi and Muhammad Awais Bin Altaf can summarize the primary benefit of studying entrepreneurship at MIT in just three words: real-life experience.
“Exposure to what’s happening in the world was my biggest takeaway from four months at MIT,” says Chaturvedi, a chemical engineer who is pursuing a PhD in interdisciplinary engineering at Masdar Institute, a research-focused technology university in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
“It opened a window on the real world, and it helps in linking my research work with real work,” says Bin Altaf, who recently completed a PhD in interdisciplinary engineering at Masdar Institute and is now an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.
Masdar Institute was established with the assistance of MIT through the MIT/ Masdar Institute Cooperative Program (MIT&MICP), with graduate classes beginning in 2009. Since then, the two institutes have collaborated on strategic research projects and academic-exchange opportunities.
In one such program, Masdar Institute PhD students apply to spend a semester abroad taking classes and conducting research at MIT. The most recent group of students included Chaturvedi and Bin Altaf, who each enrolled in an intensive MIT “ventures” course, which included mentoring, interacting with researchers and visiting entrepreneurs, and creating business plans or prototypes for potential real-world ventures.
That combination appealed to Chaturvedi, a native of India whose family has lived in the UAE for many years. “I wanted an emphasis on development and entrepreneurship, and MIT has a very vibrant startup environment,” he says, adding that he especially enjoyed meeting entrepreneurs. “These were the people who had gone through the grind of selling their ideas, entering different competitions, and trying to raise money, or who are going through the process right now.”
At MIT, Chaturvedi also met people conducting research similar to his own, which focuses on generating renewable energy from common biomass sources such as palm-tree leaves, seaweed, algae, and landscaping waste. “At MIT, there are so many people working on this topic,” Chaturvedi says. “You don’t realize that there are so many people out there following the same path that you are.”
While at MIT, Chaturvedi enrolled in Development Ventures, a one-semester course focused on founding, financing, and building entrepreneurial ventures that target developing, emerging, and underserved markets. Taught by MIT faculty members Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Joost Bonsen, the course particularly emphasizes “transformative innovations and exponentially scalable business models that can enable or accelerate major positive social change throughout the world.”
For Chaturvedi and his classmates, that meant developing and entering proposed ventures in MIT’s annual $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition (widely known as “the MIT $100K”). “They wanted an actual business plan, not a class final project,” recalls Chaturvedi, whose four-person team designed a concept for a lightweight shipping container with embedded technology that people in remote areas could use, post-delivery, to convert agricultural and household waste to electricity or biogas.
The team’s plan didn’t win the MIT $100K, but Chaturvedi, who expects to complete his PhD at Masdar Institute in May 2017, called the experience “a great exercise in learning to submit a plan to a business competition.”
His Masdar Institute colleague, Bin Altaf, focuses on developing energy-efficient wearable electronic biomedical devices, specifically on designing sensors that detect and monitor epilepsy. Not surprisingly, Bin Altaf enrolled in Healthcare Ventures, another one-semester entrepreneurship seminar. Led by MIT Professor Martha Gray and Senior Lecturer Zen Chu, the class places special emphasis on startups combining digital health and high technology. “The course was directly aligned with my research,” Bin Altaf says, adding that he came away with a strong understanding about the steps involved in designing a prototype, marketing a concept, and launching a startup.
Working in groups, Healthcare Ventures students identified industry problems, then proposed solutions for them, addressing both business and technology issues. Bin Altaf, whose team explored options for addressing mental-health problems in academic institutions, focused on the project’s technical aspects, including developing a prototype for testing the group’s ideas.
The experience helped Bin Altaf—who hopes to take his epilepsy-related medical device to market—start thinking seriously about a business model for his research work. “It taught me a lot of lessons and strategies for moving forward,” he says.
Like Chaturvedi, Bin Altaf found interacting with entrepreneurs especially useful. “One of the main highlights of the course was the mentoring. A lot of the instructors own their own health-care startups, so that helped a lot in guiding us,” he says. The course also required students to make weekly progress presentations before the whole class—including entrepreneurs. He adds: “It was really nice to get direct feedback. You get a chance to align yourself on the right path.”
Bin Altaf, a native of Pakistan who was visiting MIT for the first time, calls the class’s diverse makeup an unexpected bonus. “It helped me to work with students from different backgrounds,” he says. “Different people use different technical language. It’s essential to explain your research or problem in a way that all can understand.”
Chaturvedi, who had visited MIT twice previously, was especially impressed this time by both the talent and the generosity he encountered on campus. “It seemed like everyone was involved in some groundbreaking work, and yet they were so humble,” he recalls. “They would share everything over dinner or over sandwiches in the park.”
Finally, he says, all the students in the most recent Masdar Institute delegation shared one takeaway. “As a researcher, you’re very focused on fact and scientific evidence. We all agreed when you experience that at MIT, it’s at a whole new level,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity if you want to see how many people like you are pursuing things that are going to have an impact on the most pressing problems of the world today.”