Published: February 13, 2014
Accion Systems president Natalya Brikner presents her satellite propulsion technology
The 2014 MIT Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) Conference added a new challenge this year, a chance for MIT women entrepreneurs to pitch their startups for a $1,000 prize. Held Feb. 8 at the MIT Media Lab, this is the first time a pitch contest was added to the popular annual conference’s agenda, and the first time such a competition was held for women entrepreneurs at MIT.
“The SWIM conference is really about empowerment, and our theme of ‘Challenge Accepted’ is addressing taking risks,” said Kathleen Stetson, MBA ’14, vice president of entrepreneurship for SWIM.
Ten startups, selected from 30 applications MIT-wide, presented new ideas ranging from app-based parenting resources for educational activities to a new device to monitor and prevent leg injuries for prize show horses. In the end, the high-caliber presentations led to a quandary for the panel of three judges—who chose two winners rather than one for the $1,000 prize.
One winner was Accion Systems, presented by CEO and president Natalya Brikner. Accion is developing propulsion systems for small satellites and is queued up for its first space test in April. The company is already fielding inquiries from NASA and Fortune 500 companies. Most of the 300 or so satellites launched each year remain only in orbit for days because there is no propulsion system to keep smaller satellites in orbit. According to Brikner, a PhD student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Accion’s systems would cost $1 million, compared to $15 million for current systems, and would significantly increase the life and operability of small satellites.
“The engines that are flying on satellites today were designed before the first handheld calculator was invented,” Brikner said. “We want to change that. Our systems are lighter, smaller, and more efficient than existing systems and our product line is infinite—customers can put thrusters anywhere they want on a satellite. Advances in integrated circuits and semiconductors have allowed small satellites the size of softballs to carry advanced communications, but currently there are no propulsion systems available to them.”
Caroline Mauldin, a first year student in MIT Sloan’s dual degree program with Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, stayed closer to the earth with her company, Love Grain, to tie for first place with Accion. Love Grain serves the growing gluten-free food market through products made with teff, a gluten-free grain from Ethiopia. The company is already selling its first product, a pancake and waffle mix, and is developing an energy bar.
“Here in the United States, there are 42 million gluten-free consumers who lack nutritious and delicious options, and I know that because I’m one of them,” said Mauldin. “We’re expected to spend $6 billion on gluten free products by 2015. Teff is a tiny part of the market right now. We are creating a sustainable, compassionate business model that connects Ethiopian farmers to the United States.”
Mauldin said Love Grain launched its first product last fall and has already broken even, selling half its inventory and winning positive customer reviews. Love Grain’s long-term goal is to build a product processing facility in Ethiopia. The company is currently working with farmers to increase the teff harvest.
Judges for the competition were: Christina Chase, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship; Heather Groat, an associate at CommonAngels investment firm; and Katie Rae, managing director at TechStars Boston. In order to be eligible, entrants needed to be both MIT students and founders of the company presented.
A panel of CEOs at the 2014 MIT Sloan Women in Management Conference
Earlier in the day, a panel of seasoned women CEOs was asked to share an early setback, something that went wrong in their companies that provided lessons for the future.
“Among the most painful ones, a couple of times I had really bad hires, through lack of expertise in hiring people because I was a scientist,” said Elisabet de los Pinos, founder and president of Aura Biosciences, a life sciences firm. “When you’re small, letting someone go can feel like a third of your company. The higher up in the management team that hire is, the more at risk your company is. I survived, but that was a tough setback.”
Christine Marcus, a 2012 graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program and co-founder and CEO of Phoodeez, a catering company targeting corporate customers, shared a lesson about paying attention to individual customers. Granted a one-month trial with a large corporate client, Phoodeez provided its usual quirky fare for employees to try, not factoring in the company’s traditional culture and leadership team.
“I left it up to the sales rep, who communicated by email, which is not the best way to communicate,” Marcus said. “At the end of 30 days, I’m thinking everything’s great, ‘They’re going to sign a contract.’”
Then, Marcus said, “I get a call from the CEO, who tells me he goes to the cafeteria and he can’t find a tuna sandwich. He tells me, ‘I get Indian food one day, Thai food the next, some weird vegetarian food truck the next, and we’ve been trying to tell your sales rep that, and all I want is a tuna sandwich.’”
“The good news is, when you have a failure you can learn from it,” she said. “And that’s one thing I’ll never forget.”