From the Lab to the Marketplace:

By Jean-Jacques Degroof

When the MIT School of Architecture and Planning launched design venture accelerator MITdesignX in 2016, the Institute had been growing and evolving its entrepreneurial ecosystem for several decades, becoming a world-renowned example of excellence in entrepreneurship education. Such extensive support for entrepreneurship was firmly based on MIT’s “mens et manus” (“mind and hand”) motto, and a number of characteristics favorable to entrepreneurship were already present in Institute culture: an ingrained bottom-up mode of decision-making; academic excellence; a keen interest in problem-solving; a belief in experimenting and tolerance of failure; pride at being viewed as geeky outsiders; the tradition of applying multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving; and the desire to have a positive impact on the world.

Two students at a podium speak to an audience
Aspiring entrepreneurs: a designX team makes a pitch to move their project forward.

The emergence of MITdesignX illustrated a new phase in the evolution of entrepreneurial education at MIT that began around 2005, as support for specialized forms of entrepreneurship was growing. This evolution was also a sign of the increasing maturity and sophistication in the ecosystem supporting entrepreneurship on campus.

Around that time, specialization across industry began to receive more attention and resources, both in entrepreneurship-related curricular and extracurricular activities. In addition to MITdesignX, new initiatives in other specialized sectors included the Clean Energy Prize in 2006, Hacking Medicine in 2011, the Healthcare Innovation Prize in 2012, Hacking Arts in 2012, the $15K Creative Arts Competition in 2013, and the Fintech Club and Business Plan Competition in 2015.The Sloan Africa Business Plan Competition (2010) and the MIT–China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum, founded in 2011, focused on specific areas of the world. Social entrepreneurship, a line of specialization that had appeared a few years earlier, was gradually incorporated into more mainstream programs.

Two students at a podium speak to a panel of judges.
An MITdesignX team pitches its idea to a panel of advisors and mentors.

MITdesignX and the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem — the case of Biobot Analytics

MITdesignX illustrates this trend by supporting both for-profit entrepreneurial projects and not-for-profit enterprises, as well as ideas that combine economic sustainability with social objectives, reflecting a desire to pursue “responsible entrepreneurship.”

The goal of MITdesignX is to educate and support students in the School of Architecture and Planning as they create entrepreneurial solutions to the challenges faced in cities and the built environment. It is today one of many resources available to students, faculty, and staff members who want to develop an entrepreneurial project. And increasingly, aspiring entrepreneurs use multiple resources, whether sequentially or in parallel, indicating that the strength of the ecosystem is in the sum of its parts.

The story of Biobot Analytics, an early graduate of MITdesignX, well illustrates this point. This health-related venture resulted from a collaboration at MIT across six labs within the School of Architecture and Planning, Biological Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. Its technology combines several disciplines, including urban studies, computational biology, chemistry, virology, engineering, and data analytics.

Biobot is based on research led by the laboratories of Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, and Eric Alm, associate professor in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering, director of the Alm Lab, and director of the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics.

Biobot’s cofounders — Newsha Ghaeli, an architect and urban innovation researcher, and Mariana Matus (’18), who has a PhD in computational biology, together with Alm — aim to foster community health at all scales by detecting infectious disease and other health outbreaks early on to prevent pandemics. They achieve this by building predictive health analytics from molecular data present in human waste and collected from sewers. Biobot’s first product tracked the use of opioids based on the analysis of wastewater to help city administrators react more proactively to epidemics.

Ghaeli and Matus started their entrepreneurial journey by conducting proof-of-concept studies with the financial backing of Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment. Matus kickstarted this foundational scientific research and made it the topic of her PhD dissertation. They transitioned from research to pursuing a business project by taking part in the preparatory stages leading to MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship competition. During the Independent Activities Period of January 2017, they took part in a micro-accelerator program called MIT Fuse and began their journey with MITdesignX. They were part of the first cohort at MITdesignX, and with the support of the five-month accelerator began to transform an idea and research into a successful business venture.

Four students around a table work on a project.
MITdesignX is an academic program dedicated to design innovation and entrepreneurship. Student teams work together to plan their venture before pitching it to a panel of faculty, mentors and sponsors.

The Biobot team also took advantage of the funding and mentoring provided by other MIT entities: the Sandbox Innovation Fund Program and the IDEAS Global Challenge, the latter a contest focused on social entrepreneurship projects. The venture, one of eight winners, was awarded $10,000. The team continued over the summer of 2017 by participating in delta v, the accelerator program of the Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Illustrating the argument that the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem prepares its participants for outside contests and other support structures, Biobot was selected by the prestigious California accelerator Y Combinator for its winter 2018 cohort.

Since the arrival of COVID-19, Biobot has launched a pro bono virus testing program in collaboration with researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The team is processing sewage samples from plants across the United States to determine the presence of the virus. This information is valuable in helping communities determine sources of outbreaks, anticipate where COVID cases will appear, and react to prevent the spread of the disease.

The Benefits of Interdisciplinarity and a Lack of Barriers

Biobot’s journey is just one of countless examples of how the entirety of the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem can support the development of ideas and businesses across academic and industrial disciplines. In addition to illustrating the myriad resources available from the ecosystem during every phase of business development, it shows what can happen when silos and preconceived notions do not exist within a culture — only the shared wish to solve real-world problems. Just as there is a commitment to interdisciplinarity at MIT, there are no walls or barriers between elements of the Institute’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This fluidity makes it possible for ideas to grow and for entrepreneurs to take advantage of whatever advice and tools are available. The sheer number of resources is one thing that makes the MIT ecosystem so outstanding, but it is the flow of interactions among them that has made the system truly thrive.

Book cover.

To learn more about MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, read Jean-Jacques Degroof’s book, “From the Basement to the Dome: How MIT’s unique culture created a thriving entrepreneurial community,” from which this article was adapted.

About the author: Jean-Jacques Degroof has worked in academia, financial services, and venture investment, working with technology start-ups in both the United States and Europe. He holds an MS and PhD from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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