How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

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

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.”