MIT Seeks to Drive Innovative Startups With The Engine

Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif has announced the launch of The Engine, the university’s new startup accelerator project. The enterprise seeks to provide Boston-area entrepreneurs with the resources to get their startups off the ground. The venture was created specifically to support companies working to improve society through innovative ideas in the fields of science and technology.

The Engine will connect budding companies with investors and advisors, supplying the capital and expertise necessary to take ideas out of the lab and into the market. It has set out to raise $150 million for its initial fund, with $25 million being supplied directly by MIT, and the rest coming from larger venture capital investors. The accelerator hopes to form connections between entrepreneurs and established companies in order to create a network of innovation.

Affordable office and workspace can be hard to come by in Boston. Startups participating in The Engine will have access to 26,000 square feet of space at its headquarters in Cambridge, with plans to add an additional 200,000 or more in Kendall Square and its surrounding neighborhoods currently in the works. Additionally, participants will utilize MIT’s many lab and equipment rooms for research and the development of physical products.

“The Engine will support tough-tech firms working on big societal problems, by providing a distinctive package of resources: Patient capital, affordable local space, access to highly-specialized equipment, streamlined legal and business services, and expertise, from prototype to scale-up,” Reif said at the launch announcement. “The Engine will also connect them with a network of MIT alumni, like-minded entrepreneurs, and major corporations in other innovation nodes near and far.”

The Engine is modeled around supporting and accelerating two specific stages of startup development: the transitional outset of an idea becoming a commercial product, and the later phase of introducing developed prototypes to the market.

The enterprise hopes to support up to 60 participants at one time, with each startup remaining in The Engine for a period of up to a year.

The Engine is unique in that its selection process will seek companies looking to transform society in the long term, rather than provide large returns on short-term investments.

“What truly sets The Engine apart is the emphasis on impact: In assessing candidate companies, it will prioritize breakthrough-answers-to-big-problems over early-profit,” Reif said.

The Shea Center for Entrepreneurship at Boston College sponsors its own startup accelerator program called [email protected], which provides students from all four schools at BC with the resources to develop their ideas and connects aspiring student entrepreneurs with accomplished alumni. In addition, the Shea Center sponsors weekly workshops and a Lunch with an Entrepreneur series, both of which give students access to experienced professionals.

“The idea is to help students go from an idea to something that is closer to a commercializable entity by providing a systematic set of steps and helping them with everything from understanding customers better, to what types of experimentation make the most sense,” Mary Tripsas, the director of the Shea Center, said. “The second thing is to have experienced entrepreneurs help students through mentoring, of which part of the mentoring is getting access to a network of people who can help you as you continue your endeavor.”

One of the final goals of accelerators like The Engine and [email protected] is to produce companies that can succeed locally, contributing and attracting investment to the Boston economy.

“If you look more generally at what role entrepreneurship plays in promoting both local and broader regional economies, it contributes a ton,” Tripsas said. “There are so many universities around Boston, and what Massachusetts would love to see is those students who have entrepreneurial ideas coming out of all those local universities stay in Boston.”

In the past, the disparity of available assets like startup capital in Boston has caused many innovators to seek to grow their companies elsewhere. As the city’s startup and technological scene looks to expand, MIT believes that institutions like The Engine can help retain local talent by providing an alternative to the abundant resources available in rival tech-oriented regions such as Silicon Valley.

Reif believes that many entrepreneurs can never find sufficient support, which discourages both them and others from trying, a phenomenon that leaves them stranded in the lab. This was one of the things they identified when creating a new environment for entrepreneurs at the university.

“In effect, we keep seeing that, in fields like energy, manufacturing, robotics, biotech, and medical devices, innovators are finding it extremely difficult to secure the stable funding, space, equipment, expertise and networks to fully develop their technologies,” he said.

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Leo is the opinions editor for The Heights. He is from DC, not Washington. He enjoys Italian home cooking, live music, and leather shoes. You can follow him on Twitter @Leo_Confalone