MIT Unveils New Startup Program with Google, Greylock, Matrix VCs

2/7/13Follow @curtwoodward

MIT is one of the prime sources for big-brained engineers at the technology industry’s biggest names, and its professors have started plenty of their own companies over the years.

But some leaders on campus say students aren’t being taught enough about how to build a business. Now they’re doing something about it, with close assistance from venture capitalists who might bankroll some of those bright ideas.

Starting this week, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab is offering a new class focused on building technology-focused startups. Led by professor Dave Gifford, it’s the cornerstone of what officials are hoping will become a much larger entrepreneurship program aimed specifically at computer science and engineering students.

The idea is that, by offering time and credit for students working on entrepreneurial projects, MIT might be able to better hold on to bright young engineers who might otherwise abandon their studies—and the region—to start a company (hello, Mark Zuckerberg).

Gifford jokes that he wants to have the Stanford University send over “a 55-gallon drum of whatever they put in the water in Palo Alto.”

“People here are just as smart as people out there. But I think that we need to be more proactive about starting companies,” Gifford says. “It would be good for our students, and it would be good for the New England economy if we could get them to stay here.”

The new focus on entrepreneurship education comes at a time when the notion of starting a new technology company has become much more accessible—and even fashionable.

Major venture funds that pay for startups have been growing in size since their heydays of the late 1990s, and investors have flooded the earliest stages of company creation. An eruption of incubators, accelerators, and other private entrepreneurship “bootcamp” programs has blanketed the country in ways to learn the nuts and bolts of startups.

And there are also plenty of established programs at universities. The most obvious example is the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, the company-creation ecosystem helmed by professor Bill Aulet at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

So why does MIT’s CSAIL program need its own effort?

In interviews with Gifford and Daniela Rus, the lab’s director, it sounds like there are two answers: When it comes to entrepreneurship lessons, more is better—and there needs to be an initiative focused specifically on the kind of technical R&D done in a hardcore computer science and engineering program.

“When we do our research, we think long-term—at least 10 years out. But in the process of building systems, we come across ideas that can solve today’s problems,” Rus says. “It’s these ideas that we would like to capture and help develop.”

They’ll have help from some well-known names in the VC industry: Google Ventures, Greylock Partners, and Matrix Partners have all committed to having a senior representative involved in the new entrepreneurship course, Gifford says.

The class itself will have what sounds like an engineer’s preference toward building things: Rather than learning the concepts around forming a company, students will be working on projects that have a chance of becoming an actual business.

Students won’t be allowed to turn their projects into a company until the course is over, but early access to capital from the investors is a major selling point. Students will also get advice from other mentors connected to the department, Gifford says.

More than 20 students have registered for the new class, but more people will be tied to the program because all of the members of a possible startup team don’t need to be enrolled in the class for credit, Gifford says.

Gifford, who co-founded companies including OpenMarket, Sightpath, and Computational Biology Corp., says he doesn’t have any economic interest in the VC firms participating or in the companies that will come out of the class. VCs don’t have any special claim on financing the projects either, he says. (Gifford was an investor in previous Greylock funds, but isn’t tied to the firm for any new investments).

And it sounds like you shouldn’t expect a flashy demo day where the student entrepreneurs trot out the freshest version of their new proto-product onstage for a crowd of investors and press, he says—the plan is to keep the projects under wraps until the teams “get them sorted out.”

“I sort of view myself in part as an advocate for the students, making sure they don’t wind up in a bad situation,” Gifford says.

One example of the kind of company that Gifford and Rus would like to see come out of this new initiative is Meraki, a networking startup founded by MIT computer science alums that was bought by Cisco for $1.2 billion late last year.

That company started as RoofNet, a project aimed at supplying wireless networks over chunks of a city. Meraki’s executives tried several different ways of applying the core technology, focusing on municipal wi-fi projects, cheap ISPs in developing nations, and other ideas before selling a version to the enterprise market. Once that took off, they began moving into switches and other networking gear, catching the eye of a big acquirer.

One key for Meraki, CEO Sanjit Biswas said, was applying engineering fundamentals to things that might normally be seen as the province of finance or business management graduates: The company’s head of marketing was a former Apple coder, and the co-founder and CTO actually wrote the handbook on sales cold-calling.

“We hired engineers, basically, and broke it down into stages and measured everything,” Biswas says. “It can be done, and it’s not as complicated as you think.”

At the same time, Biswas said, there wasn’t enough of a support system around the Boston area to sustain Meraki when the nascent company was getting started in 2006. There’s a lot more of an ecosystem now, but it’s no accident Meraki relocated to the San Francisco area.

If Gifford has his way, the new CSAIL program could stop some of that migration from happening in the future.

“In the end the way that we’ll judge this is whether or not we actually did start something that was successful,” he says “It’s less about educating everyone about how to do startups than it is trying to catalyze the creation of one or two big things.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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