The Engine Launch

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

As prepared for delivery

Welcome, everybody!  In a moment, we will announce an exciting step forward for our regional innovation ecosystem. 

But before I do, I would like to offer a couple of observations about what motivated the effort that brings us together today. As you might expect, MIT’s mission statement directs us to “advance knowledge” and to “educate students.” Yet it also demands more from us, because it insists that we “bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” In effect, at MIT, it is our duty to bring transformative innovation to the world.

Now, the US arguably has the best innovation system on the planet. Within that, the Greater Boston ecosystem is among the best of the best. This region is a top player at every level:

  • Our universities and hospitals, public and private, attract significant federal funding, turn it into research breakthroughs and transform those discoveries into powerful new enabling technologies and products.
  • Every year, our colleges and universities educate thousands of outstanding students and we inspire and prepare many of them to become entrepreneurs. (Quite a few of them are in this room tonight!)
    • And Kendall Square is currently home to more than 1,000 start-ups, in fields from biotech to robotics to energy.
    • As one point of reference, we estimate that, in Massachusetts alone, living MIT entrepreneurs have founded 7,000 active companies.
  • And it’s not just about start-ups: from GE and IBM to Novartis and Biogen, the region is packed with major corporate players delivering innovative solutions to the world.
  • Of course, the whole system depends on the vital support of the venture capital community.
  • And we are also fortunate to receive encouragement from government at every level, from City Hall to the State House to Washington.

It is a wonderful story and a wonderful reality!  But.

Over the last decade, and especially since 2012, when I became MIT’s president, I have come to perceive one area of missed opportunity.

It would show up in many different contexts.

For example: In an email from an MIT professor whose new scientific discovery enabled a brilliant new approach to grid-scale energy storage but who finds the path to commercialization stretching-out beyond the typical five-year limit of venture capital.

Or when I heard a spine-tingling presentation from a faculty member working on a serious strategy to treat Alzheimer’s, only to hear afterwards that they couldn’t get the support to make it real so the idea is stuck in the lab.

Another innovator expressed the same frustration about a radically easy and inexpensive method to test for the Zika virus.

In fact, the Boston Globe recently published a survey of 100 early stage founders.

  • 75% said that founding their enterprise in Greater Boston has made their company stronger.
  • But 77% said that, for companies like theirs, the most serious barrier to entering the market is access to capital.

And the challenges are not only about money:

  • Many start-ups are torn between needing to tap the talent and expertise at the heart of an innovation district and the struggle to pay $70 dollars a square-foot for the privilege.
  • For some firms, it’s also about equipment: a faculty entrepreneur recently observed that, for most tough-tech start-ups, their first year-and-a-half and their first $3 million dollars are spent replicating the facilities they had at a place like MIT.

In effect, we keep seeing that, in fields like energy, manufacturing, robotics, biotech and medical devices innovators are finding it extremely difficult to secure the stable funding, space, equipment, expertise and networks to fully develop their technologies. Too often, these tough-tech entrepreneurs can never find sufficient support, which discourages others from trying, a dynamic that leaves many promising ideas stranded in the lab.

This is more than a matter of disappointed individuals – because many of them are working on solutions to humanity’s most important problems. So if they cannot get their ideas to market, society loses, as well. We looked at this challenge for our innovators and our ecosystem, and we saw a clear path to make a difference.

So, here’s the idea: Today, MIT is launching a separate entity called The Engine.

From its headquarters – right here at 501 Mass. Ave. – The Engine will support tough-tech firms working on big societal problems, by providing a distinctive package of resources:

  • “Patient capital”
  • Affordable local space
  • Access to highly specialized equipment
  • Streamlined legal and business services
  • And expertise, from prototype to scale-up.

The Engine will also connect them with a network of MIT alumni, like-minded entrepreneurs and major corporations in other innovation nodes near and far.

What truly sets The Engine apart is the emphasis on impact: In assessing candidate companies, it will prioritize breakthrough-answers-to-big-problems over early-profit. Our opening commitment is serious – 26,000 square feet and $25 million – and it will expand in both dimensions. Nontrivially, we are also investing MIT’s reputation.

During steady state operation, we hope The Engine will serve 60 start-ups per year. To magnify the impact, MIT will seek to attract hundreds of millions in additional support and to enable hundreds of thousands of square feet of space for entrepreneurs in Kendall Square and nearby communities. The benefits from The Engine will flow not only to local start-ups, but to the regional innovation ecosystem and ultimately to society as a whole.

By giving entrepreneurs a systematic way to develop and commercialize, here, close to the mothership, tough technologies that were invented here, we can shorten the time it takes them to get VC-ready. And once the community is aware of these resources, we believe that many more innovators will gain the confidence to bring their boldest, most important ideas out of the lab.

If you think the Engine might be a fit for your own company, please go to the website and let us know!

The Engine will also benefit the Greater Boston ecosystem by accelerating its success. By helping tough-tech companies develop to the point that they are ready for venture capital investment, it will naturally complement the strengths of the VC community. And by building a new excitement about how entrepreneurship can deliver world-changing impact, The Engine will foster new investment, attract fresh talent, retain thriving companies and help the region establish a self-renewing model of growth, reinvention and success.

And for the nation and the world, the potential benefits are impossible to calculate.

When it comes to the most important problems humanity needs to solve – climate change, clean energy, fresh water and food for the world, cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s, infectious disease – there is no app for that. We believe The Engine will help deliver important answers for addressing such intractable problems ­– answers that otherwise might never leave the lab.

Because many of these solutions depend on tangible technologies, we also have high hopes that they will ultimately produce not only new companies, but new industries, new forms of manufacturing and new jobs. And if we can truly make The Engine hum, we hope it might become a model that would be useful to other ecosystems, as well.

At MIT, we like to keep our eyes on the horizon – and we love the race to get there! Today, to reach the horizon of new solutions even faster we are starting The Engine. But we will only get there with your help – so we hope you will join us for the ride!

Before I close, I would like to acknowledge the people who made this day possible. Developing The Engine took the insight and hard work of many creative thinkers and doers inside and outside MIT. That team had a remarkable leader: MIT’s Executive Vice President and Treasurer, Israel Ruiz. Israel, thank you for the exceptional vision and leadership it took to build The Engine.

In this effort, Israel worked closely with MIT Provost Marty Schmidt, who brought invaluable expertise from his work inside multiple tough-tech start-ups and with Anantha Chandrakasan, head of our Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who was an inspiring thought-partner and helped build crucial support.

To them and to everyone involved in making this dream come true, a sincere thank you!