How Boston's universities are producing our next generation of entrepreneurs

As well as being one of the leading entrepreneurial cities in the United States, Boston is also home to world-class universities. Coincidence? Think again. To find out more about how education in Boston is breeding our next generation entrepreneurs, we caught up with Sam Bhattacharyya and Tunde Alawode, recent graduates from MIT’s delta v Accelerator and Trish Cotter, Director of the Accelerator program and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at MIT.

Earlier this month, MIT hosted the delta v Accelerator Demo Day 2016. This offers the opportunity for entrepreneurs who have taken part in the summer programme to showcase their new businesses. This accelerator is part of the wider Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and given MIT’s reputation as one of the best schools in the world, it comes as no surprise that this year’s businesses are suitably impressive.

Sam Bhattacharyya and Tunde Alawode are Co-Founders of dot Learn, a startup established through the Accelerator program that uses video compression technology to improve access to online education in the developing world. 

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Sam and Tunde met while studying at MIT, having come from very different backgrounds. Sam, after having graduated from college in mechanical engineering, started a PhD in Robotics only to decide to leave the program and spend two years in the US Peace Corps. It was following his return to the US that he decided to take up an MBA at the university. Tunde made his way to MIT from the University of Lagos in Nigeria, after completing online courses at the local public library. He now has two master’s degrees and is currently finishing his PhD. It was their respective experiences of the lack of online connectivity in the developing world (Sam with the Peace Corps and Tunde in Nigeria) that inspired them to create dot Learn.

The pair met on one of MIT’s entrepreneurship courses and their experience of the Accelerator programme has allowed them to now go on to pursue their business. Reflecting on the course, Sam says, “MIT is definitely one of the best universities in the world for encouraging entrepreneurship”. Whilst they’re both cautious to sound modest, it’s true. “In the same way you can’t just replicate Silicon Valley country-wide, the same applies to the university experience here in Boston” Sam says.

Boston acts a talent pool bringing together some of the world’s brightest students at universities like Harvard and MIT. The results of which are staggering, the annual revenue generated just from companies founded by former MIT students is $1.9 trillion. As such, MIT has garnered a reputation for being home to some of the world’s most exciting emerging technology. Tunde explains, “Boston and the MIT community create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is different to other cities, they invest in future potential and look at possible future impact of companies”.

The pair explain that unlike other entrepreneurial hubs, Boston tends to attract entrepreneurs dedicated to spending years, if not decades, working on new technology. Sam predicts that whilst Boston won’t be home to the next Airbnb, it will remain the home of start-ups that are much more research, technology and capital intensive. 

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As part of the delta v accelerator programme at MIT, the students are offered mentorship as well as teaching from experienced entrepreneurs that make up the Trust Center’s staff. Trish Cotter, Director of the Accelerator, is former-executive of two emerging companies that went public (Netezza in 2007 and Visual Networks in 1998) and also serves as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on topics related to entrepreneurship.

Trish explains that the idea of the accelerator is not just to provide help to the students’ businesses, but also to give them a strong foundation in the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. “We’re an educational accelerator, not Y Combinator,” Trish says. “This allows the students to take on big business challenges within the security of an educational environment,” she continues.

MIT prides itself on providing solutions to pressing global problems and the Accelerator is no exception. Trish explains, “I don’t even care if the idea isn’t going to work, I want to give them the experience of tackling a really big idea.”

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“I’m not looking for someone to deliver my food faster, or get a date quicker, that really isn’t the type of problem we spend our resources on. I’d rather have students who want to change the logistics of shipping, bring solar energy to developing communities, or improve the transportation infrastructure of Rwanda” Trish explains. Along with other companies that have come through the accelerator this year, dot Learn are testament to this statement.

Trish quotes a student she formerly worked with, “I thought I came here to build robots, but what I really found out was that I came to MIT to help people.”

In addition to the Accelerator program, MIT also holds its campus-wide celebration of entrepreneurship and innovation, t=0. This program inspires students, regardless of stage in their education or current degree program, to take modules in entrepreneurship. The aim is to challenge the students that graduate from MIT to go on to pursue careers that provide solutions to pressing challenges.

As a city that is clearly invested in its young talent, it comes as no surprise that Boston ranks as 18th (joint with Beijing, Shanghai and Oslo) in the world’s most economically powerful cities according to the Martin Prosperity Institute. As MIT continues to breed our next generation of entrepreneurs, this ranking looks set only to increase. 

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