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By Chuck Leddy | Video by Topher Cox
Why can’t technology be embedded into women’s clothing in order to monitor cardiovascular health, especially since heart disease is the number one cause of death among women globally? And why aren’t women themselves developing this “smart” technology?
These were the powerful questions three women at MIT—Alicia Chong Rodriguez, Monica Abarca, and Aceil Halaby—asked themselves back in 2015. They came together to found Bloomer Tech, a Cambridge-based startup that developed a “smart” bra with a wearable monitor for cardiovascular health. Bloomer Tech was just one of many innovative startups boosted by MIT’s student venture accelerator program, a 12-week “entrepreneurship boot camp” called delta v.
There’s an entire ecosystem at MIT that supports entrepreneurship, and a major component of that ecosystem is the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The Trust Center’s Executive Director and Entrepreneur-In-Residence Patricia Cotter says “our student entrepreneurs are solving real problems and trying to make a positive impact on their world. Our high-touch mentoring helps them develop critical thinking skills for problem solving.” Cotter shared the following seven insights about entrepreneurship and how MIT approaches teaching it:
The stereotype of entrepreneurs as bearded bros in gray hoodies doesn’t reflect reality, as Bloomer Tech well illustrates. Actually, entrepreneurs are surprisingly diverse, says Cotter, even if they share a few common traits. “All entrepreneurs must have grit, perseverance, and be ‘anti-fragile’—that is, they don’t break when faced with obstacles,” says Cotter. “But beyond those commonalities, entrepreneurs have a wide variety of characteristics and come from all backgrounds.”
Cotter views entrepreneurship as a craft. “First, it’s learnable. Data from numerous studies shows that the more times you start a company, the higher your odds of success are in future ventures. Second,” she says, “there are basic concepts that can be learned about how to build a business. Third, it’s best learned through apprenticeship: Real-world skills are essential to the craft of entrepreneurship. Those who launch their ideas through an entrepreneurship education program, like we have here at MIT, benefit from access to hands-on learning and mentorship.”
If entrepreneurs assume they can just build some cool new tech and customers will flock, Cotter begs to differ. “It’s not enough to make something cool,” she says. “You must offer real value to customers. Although we may assist entrepreneurs by leveraging our professional advisory network [for the student’s benefit], student entrepreneurs are responsible for finding their own customers. This is an important step in learning how to be an entrepreneur. They’ll use both quantitative and qualitative research to define their market and begin identifying target customers who find value in their offering.” This is all done before anything—however cool—gets built.
For instance, a startup called PillPack was built by its two founders at The Martin Trust Center. The startup showed it could literally deliver unique value to its customers by delivering personalized packets of medication to customers/patients at their homes, making profit in the process. Amazon recently acquired PillPack for nearly $1 billion.
“At MIT, we’re very lucky to have over 130,000 square feet of hands-on makerspaces for prototyping [building models of a product]. This enables our entrepreneurs to go out and work with customers in a disciplined way. That way, they can test and validate their ideas,” says Cotter. “We help them understand that they can’t just ‘build it and they will come’ because entrepreneurship doesn’t work that way.” Of course, when they do need to “build it,” MIT offers resources and equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters.
Entrepreneurs need to constantly make and test assumptions, then integrate what they’ve learned into their offerings. “This is one of the areas where it helps to have a process in place to teach entrepreneurs,” says Cotter. “Our entrepreneurs learn to do primary research for their businesses. They connect with people who may be their target customers, talk to them and gain insight about their product or service and its value. This is an iterative process.” Connecting the right product to the right customer means making “good” mistakes (ones that offer lessons). It also takes focus, patience, and discipline.
MIT wants to develop entrepreneurs first, not build billion-dollar companies. “Our primary goal is to teach students how to be entrepreneurs and how to start a business. We measure their success by the acquisition of a mindset and a skill set that will last them a lifetime,” says Cotter. “This can be tough sometimes because the rest of the world measures the success of any startup by funding dollars. MIT certainly opens doors, and many of our startups have been significantly funded and gone onto great financial success, but our primary goal is entrepreneurship education.”
An entrepreneur iterates, making improvements based on lessons learned through continuous trial and error. “Among the most common mistakes we see,” says Cotter, “are entrepreneurs making a product before they fully understand the problem they’re solving for customers, and going to the VCs [venture capital firms that fund startups] before they understand the basics of business. In both cases, entrepreneurs are jumping ahead in the process to where they think they should be, instead of carefully ensuring each step is well thought out.” The Trust Center, notes Cotter, “helps them be more thoughtful and strategic with their entrepreneurial decisions.”
MIT’s impact through entrepreneurship has been huge, notes Cotter. She cites a report, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation at MIT,” that shows 30,200 active companies founded by those connected with MIT, employing some 4.6 million people, and generating a whopping $1.9 trillion in annual revenues. If these MIT-connected companies were a national economy, it’d be the 10th largest economy by GDP in the entire world.
You can be sure you’ll be hearing more about the entrepreneurs and startups coming out of MIT in the years to come. They are the future of business. As Cotter puts it, “these entrepreneurs may have different motivations, but all are trying to change the world in their own way.”
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