Student “Tech Treks” Lend Reality to B-School Case Studies

1/29/10

Earlier this month, we wrapped up two consecutive weeks of treks—business school jargon for trips that combine company visits and cohort-building activities—organized by MBA students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the bicoastal innovation hubs of Greater Boston and Silicon Valley.

Ninety MIT Sloan MBAs enjoyed sun and mild weather while visiting companies in California immediately after the New Year. Another 30 MBAs ventured through the deep freeze to visit companies in the Boston area a week later. Despite the climatic differences of the two regions, both provided a wealth of innovative startups from which we could learn. All together, nearly 80 companies hosted company visits to describe their businesses and answer questions about their industries, technology, and entrepreneurship.

As an organizer of the energy track on both the Boston and Silicon Valley treks, I was privileged to visit a spectrum of companies at the forefront of energy innovation.

While all company visits were eye-opening and beneficial to our understanding of the complex energy ecosystem, a few stand out in my memory. In California, I visited Silverspring Networks, which provides infrastructure, applications and services to build reliable “smart grids.” Serious Materials brought innovation back to the building material space by creating, amongst many products, energy efficient windows that pay back in savings within two years. In Boston, Oasys Water, an early stage company, has developed a low-energy process to produce clean drinking water from industrial or municipal waste water and seawater. Beacon Power has developed technology to store energy in flywheels to modulate the frequency of voltage on the energy grid. Each company has found disruptive technology-driven solutions for new or developing market spaces.

Company executives’ practical insights on business and industry became an extension of the classroom itself. At MIT Sloan, we learn about the importance of partnerships with customers, suppliers, and financiers and of understanding the regulatory and policy framework. On the trek, we were able to hear anecdotes about how key partnerships and favorable changes in regulatory environment had become critical inflection points in many company’s business trajectory. In some cases, these first-hand accounts from executives and the Q&A that ensued provided vivid color to business school case studies.

Perhaps of more immediate concern for MBAs, the treks have also become an informal component of the courting ritual between students and potential employers. The visits not only facilitated introductions between companies and students, but also shed light on opportunities in the job market. In energy, specifically, almost all companies we visited were optimistic about their future business prospects. However, many have aggressively reduced headcount to cope with last year’s economic crises, and have found creative ways to maintain key staff while waiting for favorable conditions to scale up again.

This is a sobering reality for MBA students laden with education loans. But startups and technology innovations continue to draw the interest of business school students like myself because of the fast-paced culture and the potential to shape the future.

James Luong is a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. You can reach him by e-mail at james.luong@sloan.mit.edu or follow him on Twitter at @luongjames. Follow @

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  • Danny

    This is a good article, you somehow share your eye-opening experience to us about the use reliable “smart grids” products. It was being discussed at http://www.TintBuyer.com that if every home installed compact fluorescents, increased attic insulation, installed clear heat control window film and increase the t-stat 1 degree we would reduce CONSUMPTION far more (and far more quickly) than building new generating capacity. It’s like putting more horsepower in a car to make it go faster but ignoring excess unnecessary weight of the car.

  • http://jamesluong.com James Luong

    Thanks, Danny. Improvements in Energy Efficiency on the demand side is the low hanging fruit here. Individuals, small businesses, and big industries alike have many low-cost levers to reduce their consumption. Some economists, and perhaps the author himself, would argue that to some degree the jevons paradox is afoot. Namely, that as the efficiency of consumption of a resource increases, so does the rate of overall consumption.

  • http://www.greenhornconnect.com Jason Evanish

    Great post, James. This is definitely a very cool program. However, I think more schools should have this. What about taking students with technical backgrounds to the different startups that need more technical members for their teams? Maybe that would help increase our embarrassing 26% retention rate for Massachusetts graduates who become entrepreneurs.

    -Jason

  • http://jamesluong.com James Luong

    Thanks, Jason. The MIT tech treks are entirely student-organized. So while I definitely agree that more school should have these programs, the onus is also on students to organize and make it happen. On a side note, for those interested in energy, the MIT Energy Club is open to the public and organizes many similar programs for people to get involved.