Behind the Scenes of the MIT $100K: Leveraging 20 Years of History in 6 Months

5/19/09

Running the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is a lot like running a startup. We spend most of our time raising money. We are underpaid (in fact, we aren’t paid). Day or night, weekday or weekend, the job never really stops. There is very little formal authority (meaning our team has no real reason to listen to us except that they share our passion for promoting entrepreneurship at MIT and beyond). We hope for huge success stories in the form of $100M+ acquisitions and IPOs. And, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.

When the MIT $10K launched in 1989-1990, the competition received 54 submissions and awarded $10,000 in prize money. Behind these accomplishments was a founding team of MIT students and faculty with extraordinary vision. The vision: to motivate student entrepreneurs across the MIT campus-engineers, research scientists, MBAs, and more-to share ideas that would wed MIT-borne technologies with promising market opportunities.

Today, the MIT $100K stands out as the premier student-run business plan competition in the world, offering more prize money, networking opportunities, and mentorship to participants than any other student contest. To date, the $100K has produced several huge success stories. Two of the most well known are Akamai, which went public in 1999, and Harmonix, the technology behind Guitar Hero and Rockband, which was acquired by MTV in 2006. In total, 120+ companies have launched out of the $100K and generated market value in excess of $12.5 billion…yes, billion!

In 2009, we attracted 260 team submissions-the most ever across our 6 industry tracks-and distributed nearly $300,000 in prize money. And while we require each team to have an MIT student, almost 30% of our 900 individual entrants were business professionals and another 15% were students from leading universities across the United States. So how have we been able to maintain this momentum?

Every year, the organizing team of the $100K changes, leaving tremendous opportunities for leadership ingenuity but also the challenge of building upon the momentum of previous years. When we became Co-Managing Directors 6 months ago, we knew our first challenge would be to close enough sponsorship money to fund our prizes, events, and operating expenses. Despite it being a recession year, we were able to retain nearly all of our sponsors from 2008 and actually bring a number of new sponsors onboard, including companies that generously provide in-kind services to our finalist teams. For example, this summer, the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC)—the leading provider of office space and services to entrepreneurs-will provide our six $100K finalist teams not only with flexible, cost-effective physical space and services, but also a unique opportunity to meet an impressive mix of entrepreneurs working out of the CIC.

In some sense, the $100K has achieved a tipping point. Through word of mouth and an enormous network of distinguished alumni and supporters, from VCs to law firms to industry leading companies, the $100K now has the brand value to attract a fiercer level of competition each year. And make no mistake, the key driver of the $100K’s future success will be the caliber of teams we attract. This year’s six finalists proved that they are more prepared than ever before to hit the market with game-changing innovations. Watching these incredible teams present at the Finale, we felt like this year’s mission had been accomplished. Tomorrow, we get to work on next year-raising prize money, recruiting teams, and enjoying the best unpaid job we’ve ever had.

(If you would like to learn more about the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, and even get ready for next year, please visit www.mit100K.org).

Brian Cantwell and Sombit Mishra are MBA students in the MIT Sloan Class of 2010, and are active in the school's Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program. Brian will spend his summer working for Cambridge, MA-based HubSpot, which launched out of the $100K in 2005. Sombit will work in Malaysia for JobStreet.com, the leading job search site in Southeast Asia. Follow @

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