Student? Entrepreneur? I Choose Both
“At MIT, we reject the idea that you can’t be both a student and an entrepreneur” stated Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, as he opened up the first Founders’ Skills Accelerator (FSA) Demo Day this past Saturday. Bill emphasized the importance of utilizing MIT’s resources to start your own business—to counter the challenge posed by Peter Thiel, one of the early investors in Facebook, who offered to pay college students to drop out of school to start their own business in 2011. As a recent graduate of MIT, I can personally attest to the critical role that staying in school has played in introducing me to the co-founders of my startup, developing and ultimately incubating our idea, and eventually launching it to obtain seed funding.
Prior to MIT, the idea of starting my own company had never seemed like a realistic goal. You see, I am a biomedical engineer by training and I had spent the previous three years pipetting in a lab. I had no formal business experience prior to school, but always had this inkling to pursue an entrepreneurial venture. After joining MIT’s System Design & Management program, the first thing I did was march myself to the organizer’s meeting of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Through the $100K, I was able to take a front row seat to see how other student-run companies succeeded (and failed), by soaking in every elevator pitch, VC judging session, and funding workshop. Through the $100K, I was able to meet students from the Sloan School of Management, who introduced me to Hacking Medicine, an initiative based out of the Trust Center that aimed to build an ecosystem for student engineers, physicians, and entrepreneurs to launch disruptive businesses in healthcare. Still nervous to start my own business, I continued to get involved as a volunteer. I was literally thrown into it when MIT Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) Zen Chu pulled me from my computer in the corner of the room at one of Hacking Medicine’s weekend hack-a-thons and introduced me to my eventual co-founders.
At the event, one of our co-founders pitched the problem that his wife (a pediatrician) faced everyday. You see, medical clinics are plagued with an average no-show rate of 20 percent, thus causing inefficient use of provider time and resources. Clinics compensate for this by overbooking, which can result in variable patient volume, provider burnout, and clinic workflow lag. In response to this, our company, Smart Scheduling, is developing software that takes the guesswork out of scheduling by using machine learning algorithms to design more predictive schedules for clinics.
After launching at Hacking Medicine, we relied heavily on MIT’s resources—mentorship from EIRs (along with Zen, EIR Jim Dougherty introduced us to every clinic or hospital executive that they knew of), office space, and funding opportunities. In April, the Trust Center opened up applications for the newly formed Founders’ Skill Accelerator. Even though we were still at a very early stage, the FSA emphasized the importance of team over ideas, believing that a solid team wins over a great idea any day. And even though our team had limited startup experience, they knew they could teach us the fundamentals of starting our own business. Thankfully, we were selected as one of the 10 teams (out of over 130 who applied) to serve in the 2012 Founder’s Skills Accelerator (FSA) during our summer vacation.
As a student, I was able to complete the FSA as I wrapped up my thesis for graduation. Although challenging, the FSA was the ideal launch pad for our company. The benefits were huge for us. The FSA offered us up to $20k, while taking no equity stake, upon completion of pre-determined and customized milestones. Additionally, we received a monthly stipend, our own desk space at MIT, and full access to mentors. Perhaps the most valuable part of the experience were the bi-weekly check-ins where we discussed the progress we made and what we still needed help with. In addition, each check-in was followed by a “clinic” where entrepreneurial rock stars from the Boston community taught us core entrepreneurial concepts. For instance, Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot, taught us about inbound marketing; Paul English, CTO of Kayak, explained how he identifies and retains startup talent; and David Skok, General Partner at Matrix Partners, explained us how to determine the cost of obtaining a customer.
We were armed with 24 entrepreneurial steps developed by Bill Aulet that forced us to re-think our idea and think strategically about which markets to tackle first. All in all, the focus of the summer was GSD (Get Stuff Done), but we took away a lot more than just execution. The FSA actually taught us all the skills we needed to pursue ventures now or in the future. Startups have tremendously high failure rates, yet my teammates and I now feel like we have acquired the fundamental skills necessary to not only move forward with this startup, but also develop any startup ideas we may have in the future.
The work of the summer culminated in the inaugural FSA demo day this past Saturday at Walker Memorial in front of a crowd of 400 students, entrepreneurs, and investors. The event opened with a surprise visit from Drew Houston, Founder and CEO of Dropbox, who graduated from MIT in the process of starting his own (mega) successful company. From there, fifteen teams pitched their ideas ranging from a low-cost wound pump, bicycles that collect recyclable materials directly from households in Lagos Nigeria, and a digital art company that allows you to discover and experience art from your phone, tablet, or TV. Recent MIT graduates who have started their own companies introduced each of the teams at the event. Ash Martin, founder of Viztu Technologies, whose company was recently acquired, explained the role that MIT had in helping him find his co-founder. Ash had limited technical experience, and at MIT he was able to join forces with Tom Milnes, an engineer. Ash, Drew Houston, and all the other recent grads had the same message for the students in the room: MIT is the ideal place to start your company and you need to take full advantage of the ecosystem surrounding you.
I am proud to say that I successfully graduated from MIT, was able to launch a company as a co-founder, and helped our company obtain our first outside funding from Healthbox, a Blue Cross Blue Shield-funded health tech accelerator that we are currently participating in. We are also incubating through athenahealth’s More Disruption Please program, leveraging their healthcare information data infrastructure. We have accomplished all of this in just six months thanks to the unbelievably supportive entrepreneurial community at MIT.
Leave school Mr. Thiel? No thank you.