27 October 2016
Big deal: MIT revs $150m Engine
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has unveiled an incubator that will provide funding, space and expertise to boost commercialisation activities on and off-campus.
Author: Thierry Heles, editor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is no stranger to research commercialisation, with its technology licensing office having been led to internationally renowned heights by Lita Nelsen over more than two decades.
While Nelsen, who received GUV's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and handed over the reins to Lesley Millar-Nicholson earlier this year, certainly left the institution in good shape, that does not mean MIT is resting on its laurels.
Yesterday, L Rafael Reif, president of MIT, announced the creation of the Engine, a new initiative to provide funding, initially through a vehicle with a target size of $150m. MIT is putting $25m of its own money into the fund.
More impressively, however, is the ambitious overall scale of the venture. The university aims to attract several hundred million dollars in support – perhaps even outdoing Oxford University's £320m ($390m) behemoth Oxford Sciences Innovation.
The Engine's stated mission is to drive commercialisation efforts of research-intensive innovations that have to date been unable to secure the necessary support and resources.
To that end, the capital supplied will be long term and patient, and bring companies from the ideation phase to market release. It will focus on two distinct stages – proof of concept and the stage from advanced prototypes to commercial production.
The fund will also take a smaller equity stake than usual, though it has produced no guidelines and is pursuing strategies that would support non-profit businesses.
It plans to make 200,000 square feet of workspace affordable – both the initial 26,000 square feet of facilities at the Engine's Cambridge headquarters, and expected additional space in Kendall Square and surrounding neighbourhoods. The workspaces will be a combination of existing infrastructure, including offices, laboratories, prototyping and maker spaces, and facilities yet to be opened.
Entrepreneurs will also gain access to specialised equipment, business services and the benefit of a network of like-minded researchers. To simplify the process of accessing the resources, the Engine is set to offer a web-based marketplace on which entrepreneurs rent equipment, services and spaces from MIT and from each other.
The marketplace is based on the Mobius app, a recently released platform that enables MIT students to access the institute's resources. The marketplace will also serve as a connecting point with experts and mentors.
The peer network, meanwhile, is ambitious in scale too. MIT envisions both regional clusters and international hubs, connecting to the university's activities in Singapore and Hong Kong. The goal locally is to support 60 endeavours working to commercialise research in sectors such as biotechnology, robotics, medical devices, energy and manufacturing.
These companies will be welcomed to the Engine's incubator for up to one year, during which they stand to benefit from funding, guidance and all the other features typical for an incubator, such as legal services, administrative assistance and help with technology licensing.
On a local level, the Engine will provide transport to help researchers move between the various spaces in Cambridge, the West Campus and Boston's Seaport District, and other facilities.
MIT is not merely targeting researchers with the Engine, but will, in a pilot program run in conjunction with the city of Cambridge, offer hands-on experiences to schoolchildren. That initiative, dubbed Pathways to Invention, will offer pupils an insight into the process of making inventions and show them the college and career paths that lead to such innovation.
The Engine builds on MIT's Innovation Initiative launched in 2014, but takes that venture several steps further. And with targets set this high and firing power this significant, the Engine is sure to make an impact.
Reif said: "If we hope for serious solutions to the world’s great challenges, we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace.
"The Engine can provide that pathway by prioritising breakthrough ideas over early profit, helping to shorten the time it takes these startups to become VC-ready, providing comprehensive support in the meantime, and creating an enthusiastic community of inventors and supporters who share a focus on making a better world.
"We believe this approach can offer exponential growth to regions that pursue it successfully – and we want Greater Boston to lead the way.”
Martin Schmidt, provost at MIT, said: "The Engine builds on work MIT has undertaken in recent years to stoke innovation on and near our campus – including starting up the MIT Innovation Initiative in 2014.
"Our faculty, alumni and student entrepreneurs directly serve the institute’s mission of using science and technology to make a better world, because the problems they pursue tend to be the hardest ones they can find."
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