As Entrepreneurs-in-Residence Rotate, MIT’s Talent Tree Grows

At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.

We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.

Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.

Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the  Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”

“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”

“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”

Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.

Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”

Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now

As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.

Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.

Another former MIT EIR, Donna Levin, heads up Babson’s Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurial Leadership as CEO. While Chen and Levin are cultivating entrepreneurship in educational leadership roles, other EIRs have gone on to start their next venture.

Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.

Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.

Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.

Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs

It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.

Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.

Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.

Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”

She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.

Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.

In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”

Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.

What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”

Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”

In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”

Keeping it Fresh

In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.

Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”

Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”

Conclusion

“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”

Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”

As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.

An Entrepreneurial Partnership: Wellesley College and MIT students team up for delta v 2020

This week, I had a chance to meet with Wellesley students at an on-campus event and experience their passion for entrepreneurship. They had an excellent reason to be excited. Wellesley has just announced its Batchelor Feld Entrepreneurship Fellowship program.

Amy Batchelor and Brad Feld are known as a power couple in entrepreneurship, venture capital, and philanthropic circles. Amy is a Wellesley grad and Brad is an MIT grad, so creating a partnership between the two schools made sense for them.

The Batchelor Feld Fellowship program

Wellesley students will now have the opportunity to apply to the 2020 MIT delta v summer accelerator program, made possible by a grant from the Batchelor Feld Fellowship program. (Applications close Monday, March 30, 2020 at 8 pm EDT, so if you are interested, start the application process now!)

As a bit of additional background on the program founders, Brad Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures. Brad is also a co-founder of Techstars. As a long-time venture capitalist who has supported entrepreneurship in the for-profit sector, he also provides his expertise and leadership to non-profits. Brad holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Amy Batchelor is a writer and community leader who has been deeply involved in non-profit activity for two decades. She is the co-author of the book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. Amy graduated from Wellesley College in 1988 with a B.A. in Political Philosophy, and she served on the Board of Trustees at Wellesley College from 2009 to 2015, and 2018 to the present.

Their generosity has enabled Wellesley students to apply to be a Batchelor Feld Entrepreneurship fellow and be full participants in the MIT delta v program in either Cambridge or New York City, alongside the MIT students.

We are excited to have Amy and Brad join our long list of generous donors that have made this program possible, including Jack and Anne Goss who helped get delta v off the ground. It is the generosity of these philanthropists and their support of entrepreneurship that allows us to continue to innovate and elevate our entrepreneurship programs.

What is delta v?

MIT delta v is MIT’s student venture accelerator, providing a capstone educational opportunity for MIT student entrepreneurs that prepares them to hit escape velocity and launch into the real world. The name delta v literally means a change in velocity, and this program has been called the gold standard of academic entrepreneurship accelerators.

From June to early September, teams work on their ventures full-time for the whole summer. Teams will define and refine their target market, conduct primary market research and build knowledge about their customers and users.  They will use the Disciplined Entrepreneurship approach to building their ventures. At the end of the summer, the delta v teams formally present their startups at the culmination of the program on Demo Day.

Here are the basics to consider as students think about the program:

  • All Wellesley students are eligible to apply as individuals or as a team
  • Full participation in delta v in either Cambridge or New York City
  • Up to $20,000 in equity-free funding available
  • $2,000/month per student to cover living expenses in June, July, and August
  • Monthly video mentorship meetings with Amy Batchelor and Brad Feld
  • Join a cohort of peers changing the world through entrepreneurship
  •  Become part strong network of delta v alumni teams with a proven track record

Thanks to our Wellesley team!

I’d like to give a special thank you to Anabel Springer and Carolyn Price at Wellesley College. These two women are co-founders of NRICH Invest, a fintech startup designed to motivate college students to invest and save, and they drove the charge for this program. The pair worked as a part of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund’s Fall 2019 cohort, so are familiar with the benefits of the MIT entrepreneurship community, such as mentorship, funding and peer support.

In speaking about the program, Anabel Springer said, “We are ecstatic that this opportunity will provide a way for Wellesley students to engage with entrepreneurship and the larger startup community. Cheers to growing this community and supporting more women and nonbinary student founding teams. Let’s celebrate this moment for entrepreneurship!”

Carolyn Price added, “The fellowship program is an unparalleled opportunity for Wellesley student entrepreneurs to learn and create within Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s entrepreneurship accelerator program, delta v.”

In addition, Celine Christory, head of WeStart, and Tarushi Nigam Sinha, president of Wellesley Women in Business (WWIB) also supported us with this program.

Application, Deadline and Planning for Summer

As a reminder, applications are due at 8:00 pm EDT on Monday, March 30th. You can apply at: https://bit.ly/deltav-wellesley 

We hope to welcome several Batchelor Feld Entrepreneurship Fellows to delta v this summer! For any questions, please email mtc-deltav20@mit.edu or visit deltav.mit.edu.

As we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and make every effort to keep our students, faculty and staff healthy, both MIT and Wellesley are conducting classes virtually for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester.

Our physical space at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship is currently closed, but we have committed to making delta v a reality this year and are still exploring different formats if they are needed. We will keep our applicants and the Entrepreneurship community updated.

Entrepreneurship 2020: A Look Ahead

Heading into a new decade is a time for both reflection and predictions. What have we learned about entrepreneurship? And what do we see as trends moving forward?

2019 marked the tenth summer that MIT’s Martin Trust Center has hosted an accelerator and the eighth year of our formal MIT delta v program. I’ve had the pleasure of leading delta v for the past five years, and I’ve seen tremendous growth during that time. The summer-long bootcamp works with entrepreneurs who enter with an idea for their business and progress to product creation and new venture launch. The program is based on the Disciplined Entrepreneurship framework with the philosophy that entrepreneurship can be taught; you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur.

A Decade of Success at MIT’s delta v Accelerator

We’ve studied the path of the companies coming out of delta v; as of January 2018, 101 teams made up of 316 students had taken part, and a full 75% of these startups were either still in business or had been acquired – far above the average for new ventures. These delta v alumni companies employ more than 500 workers across the globe, and 25% of our teams have ten or more employees. According to figures on Crunchbase, as of November 2019, delta v teams have raised more than $215 million from 375+ investments. One-third of the companies raised at least $1M+, and six teams have exceeded $10M+ in funding rounds.

In the words of one of our board members, Max Faingezicht, “delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.”

So, what changes do we anticipate in the next decade of entrepreneurship? Some of the broader trends we see are ones reflected in delta v.

A Rise in Women Entrepreneurs is Impacting the Economy

It is a fact that women entrepreneurs are driving economic growth. According to an article in Forbes on 10 Stats that Build the Case for Investing in Women-Led Startups, women were the sole or majority owners of an estimated 12.3 million U.S. businesses at the beginning of 2018, and are starting businesses at a rate of more than 1,800 per day. The number of women-owned companies is growing at a faster rate than all businesses and women of color are driving this. In addition, companies founded by women deliver higher revenue – more than 2 times as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men.  

Four out of every ten businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, according to The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). These businesses tend to be smaller in terms of revenue and employment. In fact, 88% of women-owned businesses generate less than $100,000 in annual revenue, while 1.7% generated more than $1 million in revenue – although both segments are growing.

At MIT’s delta v we see more women taking leadership roles in the startups. With each cohort, we strive for diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds plus a worldwide perspective, and we proactively aim to neutralize gender bias for entrepreneurs. Diverse teams offer a tremendous benefit in terms of networking and help each other solve challenges, supporting our philosophy that diversity fuels innovation. We’ve also seen that the rate of our successful women-led startups is even higher than the delta v average.

Mentorship Lays the Foundation for Entrepreneurial Success

An article in VentureBeat explains that people with access to a mentor are five times more likely to be interested in starting a business than those without a mentor. Mentorship is linked with business success, and business owners who receive three-plus hours of counseling report higher revenues and employment growth rates. The article also states nearly half of women entrepreneurs say one of the top challenges they face is finding a mentor who can direct them to the resources and organizations that can help them launch their businesses. 

At delta v, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and board members are built-in mentors for our student teams. Both bring resources and experience to guide the new entrepreneurs on their journey. We also encourage student entrepreneurs to find their voice. This requires mentees to speak up and be active participants in the process. They need to own their narrative, identify what is of value to them, and speak up to find a mentor or sponsor and make that relationship fruitful.

Gen Z’s Vision of Entrepreneurship

Although we work with a lot of Millennials in delta v, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the upcoming generation of entrepreneurs. (Pew Research considers anyone born between 1981 and 1996 a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Generation Z.)

Gen Z has different priorities and different frames of reference than the entrepreneurs who preceded them. Amazon’s next-day delivery has always been a thing for them. They never went to Blockbuster to rent a movie and social media permeates their lives. As a result, internet-based business models are second nature; “Uberize” is even a verb used to describe a business model. Entrepreneur states that 41% of Gen Z-ers plan to become entrepreneurs.

Interestingly, Millennials are less likely to become entrepreneurs, according to a study from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It revealed that fewer than 4 percent of 30-year-olds are actively engaged in entrepreneurship, compared with 5.4 percent of Generation X-ers and 6.7 percent of Baby Boomers who were entrepreneurs at the same age. Coming of age during a time of recession and burdened with student debt, many Millennials turned to side gigs to make money. I explored the gig economy in my Xconomy article on Necessity vs. Innovation-based Entrepreneurs. Interestingly, necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their businesses.

As each new generation makes its way in the world, it is fascinating to see how they view entrepreneurship and the new types of businesses they create.

What’s Ahead for delta v?

With the data we have gathered on the delta v teams over the past decade, one of our next steps is to develop a more scalable playbook so that we can extend our reach even further. At MIT, we rely on observations, research, and experimentation. Our motto, mens et manus (which translates from Latin to “mind and hand”), is present in everything we do. In entrepreneurship classes and programs, this approach is vital. Our students don’t automatically have a higher success rate; they learn the fundamentals of becoming an entrepreneur hands-on. At the Martin Trust Center, we have integrated the mechanics of new venture creation in curriculum, programming, community support, and we have validated them on a world stage.

As the collective knowledge of entrepreneurship improves, we continue to move forward to meet the needs of the entire entrepreneur. However, like any discovery, it takes several experiments and iterations to fully understand aspects of the problem you are trying to solve. We realize that mental fortitude and self-awareness are crucial to moving forward and are implementing some exciting new programming in this area.

As we prepare to lead entrepreneurs into the next decade, there are some “big rocks” to address. We need to prepare students for financial discussions and mental stamina for the funding process. We need to focus on establishing a culture and nurturing it, supported by our team. A business reflects the character of the founding and growing team, so the journey starts with an individual and builds to a long-term game.