Innovation 101: Perspectives from a Humble MIT Undergrad

12/17/07

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great honor of attending Xconomy Forum: The Future of Innovation in New England. As I met some fantastic angel investors and shook hands with iRobot CEO Helen Greiner, I felt the strange euphoric giddiness once only reserved for Christmas mornings. What was I, a lowly and unproven student, doing in the company of giants?

As the forum progressed, my purpose became clear (to me, anyway). The question at hand was what can we do to build more billion-dollar technology companies in Massachusetts? I heard talk of providing free housing, eliminating capital gains taxes, and scratching out non-compete clauses. All of this made sense, and formed an exciting new viewpoint for me. However, where was the talk about connecting with students, sourcing ideas out of academic institutions, and retaining talent? These ideas were raised—mainly by MIT Media Lab head Frank Moss—but never fleshed out. Well, ladies and gentleman (by which I really mean investors), you can’t escape the truth (or a driven undergrad on a late-night sugar high). I present to you my one-man discourse on the following question: “How do I make connections with students, and why should I even care?”

First off, let me give you a peek into the student psyche. Mind you, this reflects the understanding and assumptions of just one MIT senior in Material Science and Engineering. With that disclaimer/personal pitch taken care of, here are some interesting facts:

  1. A significant portion of my MIT friends (of which Facebook meaninglessly counts 459) have expressed interest in starting their own businesses. Very few have acted on that interest.
  2. Today’s mainstream, aspiring student aims for a job in:
    • Glamorous, lucrative, ambition-drenched Wall Street
    • Prestigious, door-opening, generalist-friendly consulting
    • Young, hip, cool Google/Apple
  3. You have networks. So do we.
    • All the entrepreneurs in each class know who each other are.
    • We go to dinners together. We brainstorm with each other. We share our dreams of bootstrapping a billion-dollar startup with one another.
    • We host mini conferences together. You probably haven’t heard of them. Maybe you never will.

So, you may ask, “what does this all mean to me?” Well, note that you are not involved in any of the above hopes, dreams, or activities—all of which can profoundly affect whether and how today’s students become tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs. I take great pride in knowing that my fellow MIT students are going to be the world’s best scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, most of these students are not likely to help you in your efforts to make money, change the world, or whatever else it is that drives you. Why is that? Because the vast majority of students fall into one of the following four categories:

  1. They don’t know you exist
  2. They don’t trust you (read: vulture capitalists)
  3. They are intimidated by you
  4. They haven’t had the opportunity to meet you

Now, I am not suggesting that you, as a venture capitalist or angel investor, should chill at MIT looking to meet students. We both know that you don’t have the time for that. Instead, I am suggesting that you connect with major network nodes within the MIT student-entrepreneur community. Get to know the student who knows all the entrepreneurs and has the talent and drive to make something of himself/herself, and you get the value of their network as well. And as technology continues to evolve, disciplines continue to merge, and systems become more complex, the value of that student network will continually increase.

So how do you find these superstars? You don’t! Truth is, they find you. All you need to do is eliminate category four above and create the opportunity from them to find you. Now this is where I propose a groundbreaking and immense concept that will change this ecosystem…internships! Silly? I think not. Anticlimactic? Probably, but just listen a little longer. Establishment of a very selective internship program at your firm or angel group will:

  1. Boost your reputation at MIT
  2. Encourage entrepreneurship at MIT
  3. Establish student connections that will provide great returns
  4. Increase the quality and number of ideas making it through your filters

Are these investments in the MIT community worth it? Frank Moss has challenged VCs to spend 0.1% of their funds on students. Will it kill you to do that, or maybe even to increase that to 0.2%? Internships really do make a difference. I did an internship at incTANK Ventures my sophomore summer, and I can honestly say that you wouldn’t be reading this right now if it wasn’t for the mentorship of firm partners Karl Ruping and Chad Jackson. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I’ll let you decide.

Ultimately, I just want to point out that coaxing growth in this region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem requires a multi-pronged approach, so while you’re thinking about housing and contracts, taxes and billion-dollar companies, I’d like to send out a friendly reminder not to overlook the students. Of course, I’m just an undergrad—and what do we know? My guess is it would benefit you, us, and the innovation ecosystem if you found out.

Albert Park is an avid entrepreneur and a senior undergraduate pursuing a S.B. in Material Science and Engineering and a minor in Management Science at MIT Follow @

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/fmoss/ Frank Moss

    Albert, nice piece. Your suggestion that the investor community provide internships to students could be a really excellent piece of the puzzle. I would add that in addition to these internships being at the firms themselves, it would be great if they would be in real portfolio companies – this would make the connection not only with the VCs but the entrepreneurs themselves. As to your question “I’m just an undergrad – and what do I know?” , I think the answer is clear from your piece – a helluva lot.

  • http://enterpriseforum.mit.edu/ Christine Tempesta

    Interesting comments Albert. The MIT Enterprise Forum is fertile ground for students, tech entrepreneurs and VCs to connect up and meet. Everyone is welcome. In addition, any MIT alum VCs out there are welcome to contact me for participation in the Student/Alumni Expternship Program run by the Alumni Association.

  • Jim Aylward

    Great job, Albert. As we discussed at the Xconomy event, it is important for investors to understand what students are thinking – you are our next generation of innovators and business leaders. I firmly believe that we need to connect our networks to maximize the talent and ideas coming from MIT and other universities around Boston to cultivate regional and national growth companies. I agree that a mentor program / internship would be great – that will require mentors to tie students into their networks. This is a long term (lifetime) relationship building program. Since these networks are often heavily local to the Boston area, one could only hope that the students who get tied into them stay in Boston and prosper here!

  • http://bznotes.wordpress.com Bilal Zuberi

    Albert-very useful thoughts. I have hired MIT interns during the summer and the IAP periods for all 4 years of my startup venture’s life in the Boston area. It has been a rewarding experience, certainly for my company, and I hope also for the interns. The process is fairly simple, as Christine can explain, but the real success comes only when the internship/externship sponsors put just a little bit of thought into designing the projects for the students so they learn simultaneously about the technology, business strategy, startup/venture issues, and public presentation/interfacing.

    Speaking of which, I better go prepare for my IAP interns for 2008….

  • http://www.ibm.com/software Karen Lilla

    Albert, thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts into writing — especially at the end of the semester. It’s always refreshing to hear the insight of a college undergrad, and to Frank Moss’ point…give yourself a little credit! You and your MIT colleagues play an important role in Boston’s thriving tech community.

  • Rajat Suri

    Nice article Albert – as another student, I think you hit the nail on the head!