How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

And why Harvard—Harvard!—is scrambling to catch up.

By Chris Vogel | Boston Magazine |
how mit became the most important university in the world

Photo by Scott M. Lacey

Last November, with great fanfare, Harvard celebrated the opening of its sparkling new $20 million Innovation Lab. A soaring 30,000 square-foot testament to contemporary architecture built right into the heart of the Harvard Business School, the I-Lab represents something profoundly new for the university: a full-throttle effort to transform itself into a leader in the increasingly important world of tech entrepreneurship. The goal, both simple and ambitious, is to bring together the world’s best and brightest young entrepreneurs, to nurture them in a stimulating and collaborative environment, and to help them transform their ideas into real-world businesses. “Gathering great minds under a single roof” is how Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, described the mission of the I-Lab at the opening ceremony, “so that they can become great together.”

Tech entrepreneurship is the new sexy. It’s what legions of promising teens and twentysomethings are crazy for today, and Harvard wants in on the action. Sure, the university can claim two of the great tech entrepreneurs of the age, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, as its own. But they had to drop out of Harvard in order to transform their world-changing ideas into reality. “Zuckerberg did Facebook over our dead body,” says Joe Lassiter, the faculty chair of the I-Lab. “The commitment to [entrepreneurship] at this level, and across the university, is quite a new thought.”

True to form, Harvard has been touting the creation of the I-Lab as a revolutionary development, as a stop-the-presses, here-we-come moment of change not just for the university but also the world of higher education. But the thing is, it’s not. Harvard is actually nearly a quarter-century late to the world of tech entrepreneurship, and as it scrambles to get into the game, it’s finding itself in an uncomfortable position, not leading the charge, as it would like to, but desperately playing catch-up to its crosstown rival, MIT.

In many ways, the I-Lab is actually a derivative enterprise, clearly based on the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, which since 1990 has been nurturing tech entrepreneurs and churning out an astonishing number of startups. “You can see that Harvard copied MIT,” Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Trust Center, and himself a Harvard alum, told me recently. “We’ve been doing entrepreneurship for a long time, and now Harvard is finally coming over to our way. But MIT has never been better. This is our time.”

Indeed it is. Everybody’s suddenly sweet on MIT. This past July, speaking in Boston at the Global Business Travel Association, Bill Clinton described the university as having the “best technology-transfer program in the country,” tops at turning student ideas into blockbuster businesses. It’s hard to disagree. Between 2000 and 2006, MIT graduates started more than 5,800 companies, and the numbers have only been rising since. The Institute produces more patent applications than any other single university in the world, with 179 in 2011. MIT’s entrepreneurial impact is so great that, according to a 2009 study conducted by the founder of the Trust Center, active companies created by its alumni bring in a combined revenue today of as much as $2 trillion. That would make those companies the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world.

Those in the rankings business are also falling over themselves to praise MIT. This past August, Forbes named the Institute the second-most-entrepreneurial college in the country, and that same month, after taking into account such factors as the potential earnings of graduates, Newsweek’s the Daily Beast named it the nation’s most affordable college. Then in September came the best moment of all. In its annual ranking of the world’s great universities, QS, a London-based education-consulting-and-research firm, moved MIT above Harvard—and named it the best in the world.


how mit became the most important university in the world

Ash Martin certainly never wanted to go to Harvard. Why would he? In his view, Harvard spits out CEOs, bankers, lawyers, and moneymen. That’s so 1990s. / Photo by Jesse Burke

MIT has long been the home of the nerd whose idea of fun is staying up late solving equations and writing code. But that’s changing fast. Droves of energetic young rebels, risk takers, and mavericks are now arriving at the university, hoping to make it big as tech entrepreneurs, and they’re transforming the spirit of the place. As improbable as it might seem, MIT has gone from geek to chic. “I lecture all around at different schools, like Babson, Emerson, BU, BC, Harvard, and MIT,” says Brian Patrick Halligan, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the CEO and founder of the successful Cambridge-based marketing-software business HubSpot. “And MIT kids are by far the best. They’re smart, articulate, covered in tattoos—they’re cool and hip and very different. Their clothes are edgy. And they’re all starting companies.”

Ash Martin, in his second year at Sloan, is exactly the kind of student Halligan is talking about. A cofounder of Viztu Technologies, which creates software that allows anyone to take and print digital 3-D images, Martin is blonde and brawny, with chiseled movie-star looks—and yes, he has tattoos. He plays water polo. He looks like a rock-star surfer, not someone who’s been hunkered down for the past year in the technological trenches, making breakthroughs in 3-D technology.

Martin is at the vanguard of change. Traditional careers in banking, medicine, and the law, which once promised lavish salaries and long-term sustainability, no longer provide a guaranteed route to success. The American Bar Association announced in June, for instance, that in 2011 only 55 percent of the nation’s law school graduates had landed full-time jobs within nine months of graduation. Overall, there are fewer “forever” jobs. Thousands of talented young students who might previously have considered these traditional careers are now deciding to go it on their own as entrepreneurs—and they’re choosing colleges and universities accordingly.

Martin shatters the geek stereotype, yet he feels right at home at MIT. “It’s full of my people,” he says, “the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done people. This is where it’s at, and where I want to be.” Martin certainly never considered Harvard. Why would he? In his view, Harvard spits out CEOs, bankers, lawyers, and moneymen. That’s so 1990s. Like so many others in his generation, he doesn’t want to be just a businessman, or a tech geek who makes things work behind the scenes. He wants to be like Steve Jobs, an iconoclastic master of the universe, a tech wizard with culture-changing powers. He chose MIT specifically because, in the new global economy, it offered him the best chance to realize his dreams: to start a business and make a difference in the world, not to mention earn some serious cash. On all of those fronts, he’s well on his way. A few months ago, he and his partner sold Viztu Technologies for an undisclosed sum to an international outfit called 3D Systems.

“Tech entrepreneurship is becoming a profession akin to law or architecture,” says Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of the Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. “And that’s increasingly causing people to say, ‘How do I prepare for this and arm myself to tip the odds in my favor?’” These days, for those lucky enough to get in, there’s a simple answer to that question.

Go to MIT.

how mit became the most important university in the world

Romi Kadri, full-time MIT student and entrepreneurial jack of all trades. / Photo by Jesse Burke

That’s exactly what I did one afternoon this past August. Universities often feel deserted in the summer, but when I arrived at the Trust Center, the hub of MIT’s entrepreneurial efforts, I found the place crackling with life.

An independent entity within MIT, the center offers students from all parts of the Institute a wealth of resources: expert mentors, office space, classes on entrepreneurship, and networking opportunities with not only other students and faculty but also outside businesspeople and venture capitalists. Certain specialized programs—ones involving mentoring and grants, for example—require students to apply and be accepted, but any MIT student interested in entrepreneurship can register for classes, meet with experts about an idea for a company, or join one of the 14 student clubs dedicated to creating businesses. The center began in 1990 by offering one class, taught by an adjunct professor, but today has more than 30 courses, taught by 35 faculty members from all over MIT, and offers an MBA track with Sloan in entrepreneurship and innovation. And student interest has skyrocketed. In 1996 only 288 students took entrepreneurship courses. Now approximately 1,500 sign up for them every year.

From the outside, the center doesn’t look like much. It’s hidden inside a drab, unremarkable building on the MIT campus, known to all simply as E40. When you enter, though, you find yourself in a space that’s cheery, modern, and bright. Most walls are covered in whiteboard paint for students to scribble on as they work, and those that aren’t have been painted an intense shade of orange. At only 4,000 square feet, it’s a small space, long and narrow, but MIT has made the most of it, packing in open-air cubicles, a few phone-booth-size offices, some bigger glass-walled workrooms, a video-conference room, and a kitchenette filled with cases of free energy drinks and ramen noodles.

Most of the real work gets done in an open area at the rear of the suite. When I got there, I found clusters of students in T-shirts at a number of movable tables on wheels. In one corner, a small group wasdiscussing the development of solar panels designed to power cell phones. Several desks away, two women were working out the kinks in a plan to create an iTunes-like marketplace for photographs and paintings. A group of guys near them was talking through the design of a super-slippery plastic container that would make even honey and ketchup slide easily out of bottles, a high-tech bid to capture part of the $33-billion-a-year condiment industry. The space was buzzing with activity, and as I wandered around it was easy to believe that somewhere in the room with me might be the next Jobs or Zuckerberg.

Several days later, at a nearby coffee shop, I met Romi Kadri, a junior from Scotland. Tan, fit, and 21 years old, Kadri has a warm smile and the ceaseless energy of a Red Bull addict. He wrote his first business plan when he was nine. When he was 15, he introduced the owners of a mom-and-pop bicycle store in his hometown to the Internet and proceeded to transform their operation into an online powerhouse. Just another MIT geek, right? No. He grew up in Glasglow, where navigating the city’s notorious high school gang culture is a key aspect of teenage life. Kadri dropped out of high school when he was 16, taking a job at Rolls-Royce as an apprentice in the gas-turbine division. Two years later he came to MIT, where he is now a full-time student. He also works part time as a management associate for the legendary L.A. music company Interscope Records, and helps a Silicon Valley venture capital firm connect with promising young entrepreneurs at MIT. On top of it all, he’s developing a new business that he hopes will produce hybrid zero-emission drive systems for Jet Skis and motorbikes.

Kadri is precisely the kind of dynamic, unconventional student that Harvard would love to attract now that it’s finally gotten into the tech-entrepreneurship game. But like Ash Martin, he never considered the school. “Harvard may be the ultimate brand,” he told me, but “in a world that moves as fast as it does now, it’s important to be focused and goal-oriented, and not just learn a bunch of stuff for its own sake. MIT reflects that world perfectly. And for me, MIT was the only way to go.”

It’s not just the Trust Center that has made MIT so important and popular today. The amount of technological innovation and entrepreneurial activity taking place at any moment all over the campus is remarkable.

Everybody knows about the Media Lab, of course. Founded in 1985, it’s perhaps the world’s most famous and productive seedbed of invention, a place where Thomas Edison would have felt at home, and perhaps even a little intimidated. Students at the Media Lab make science fiction come to life. Fabric-based computers, glucose-powered prosthetic limbs, robot skin made of sensory textiles, nanowires for the synthetic photosynthesis of liquid fuel—the Media Lab does it all. Primarily designed to encourage creativity and innovation, the lab has nevertheless spawned more than 120 spinoff companies.

Less known are the many other MIT initiatives related specifically to encouraging entrepreneurship. There’s the annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, begun in 1990, which offers student entrepreneurs the chance to win a serious amount of startup money. The program is watched closely by venture capitalists and has been copied by dozens of universities across the country. Just this past year, for instance, Harvard created its own $100,000 student competition, called the President’s Challenge.

Then there’s MIT’s Deshpande Center, founded in 2002, which provides cash grants to teams of professors and students from across the university. Already it has awarded more than $11 million to more than 90 entrepreneurial projects, 26 of which have become commercial ventures. And this past summer the Institute kicked off yet another venture, the Founders’ Skills Accelerator, which offers teams of students space inside the Trust Center to develop their companies. Each student receives a monthly $1,000 stipend, and teams can earn up to $20,000 if they hit a series of milestones aimed at turning their idea into a fully funded venture. Nearly 130 teams applied to the program. MIT had the money to accept only 10, but rather than just rejecting the remaining applicants, the university took the kind of creative step that has made it so appealing to students like Martin and Kadri: It found a neglected suite of offices on campus and created what’s known as the Beehive Cooperative, where more than 40 teams are now at work on projects they’d intended to complete as part of the Accelerator program. They don’t get any prize money, but they’ve got the space they need.

All of this represents a stunning achievement. MIT, founded a century and a half ago to serve the technological needs of the industrial age, has managed to transform itself into an incubator for the digital age. This kind of dramatic self-reinvention is almost unheard of for a major university. “Historically,” says Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the former president of the Teachers College at Columbia, “institutions have gotten one bite out of the apple, and never progressed to the new era. MIT is the only institution that’s done both and is once again at the very forefront, ahead of any other institution.”

That kind of talk doesn’t go over well at Harvard, which likes to be a leader in everything it does. That’s why the university has invested so much money in its Innovation Lab. The facility hosts classes taught by visiting entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and offers students the chance to work with leading figures from all sectors of the business world. Teams of students can apply for workspace inside the facility to develop ideas and plan startups, and demand has been high. This fall the I-Lab is home to more than 60 teams, composed of 150 students—most of them, not surprisingly, from the business school. One of those students is Levi Belnap, who’s already founded a company with the help of the initiative. Belnap believes a promising new era of tech entrepreneurship is dawning at Harvard. “I think you’re going to see more Harvard companies coming out of here,” he says.

The odds that the I-Lab will help Harvard catch up to MIT, however, seem impossibly long. That’s partly a reflection of cultural differences between the two schools. According to Christine Marcus, an MIT grad who recently spent time working at both the Trust Center and the I-Lab, something is just a bit off about the I-Lab. The atmosphere feels rigid, cloistered, sterile. Unlike the Trust Center, which is open to MIT students at all hours, the I-Lab closes at 1 a.m. during the week, is manned by a security guard, and requires students to sign in before entering. This kind of formality may seem normal to anyone who works in a conventional office, but to the up-and-coming generation of rebel innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s just a buzzkill. “I got to see both worlds,” Marcus says, “and they are definitely different cultures. At MIT, there’s no pretense, and everyone is very humble and lets the work speak for itself. At Harvard, it’s much more structured and formal. They try to help you and answer questions, they bring in speakers and mentors, but that same level of energy just isn’t there.”

Partly, that’s deliberate. Harvard isn’t out to create businesses with its students, not even those at the I-Lab. Its primary concern, as always, is giving them a well-rounded education. “We don’t push,” says Joe Lassiter, the I-Lab’s faculty chair. “We help.”

MIT, on the other hand, keeps pushing—and that is why it’s leaving Harvard behind. The world is changing dramatically, and MIT has decided to change with it. According to Sal Khan, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who went to MIT as an undergrad and earned an MBA from Harvard, the result is a new kind of MIT graduate, an entrepreneurial go-getter fully prepared to meet the challenges of the modern age. It’s Khan’s job to make bets on which young entrepreneurs will be the most successful, and he has no doubts about where to put his money. The modern MIT student, he believes, is battle-tested and ready to go. “It’s analogous,” he says, “to someone being in Special Forces, or a Navy SEAL.”

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