The accidental entrepreneurs

For some MIT students, entrepreneurship happens by chance

July 1, 2013

MIT PhD candidates Stephen Messenger and Julien de Wit (third and fourth from left) at an entrepreneurship event on campus

MIT PhD candidates Stephen Messenger and Julien de Wit (third and fourth from left) at an entrepreneurship event on campus

Although many entrepreneurs go to school with the intention of starting a business, for some, the fact that they end up starting companies comes as something of a surprise. An interest in entrepreneurship can be sparked by a perceived opportunity for innovation in a student’s field of expertise or by an unexpected passion for another industry. In other cases, students believe they have come up with a profitable solution to a societal problem.

Shambhavi Kadam, MBA ’12, planned to enter the aerospace industry and ended up catching the entrepreneurial bug, which sent her career in an entirely different direction. She finished her undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at MIT in 2006 and took a position at The Boeing Company after graduation, but decided that the role didn’t offer enough room for advancement. When the aerospace industry entered a downturn, Kadam began to consider other professional possibilities. She enrolled in MIT Sloan’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation MBA track and began writing for The MIT Entrepreneurship Review, eager to learn more about business and entrepreneurship.

“Writing for the Entrepreneurship Review was a great way to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem without necessarily having to execute an idea right away,” said Kadam. “That eased the process and made me feel like I fit into the ecosystem and was not an outsider looking into it. I started taking part in a lot of the other activities and trying to come up with ideas that I wanted to test out while I was at school.”

In an MIT Sloan course called Application of Advanced Entrepreneurial Techniques, Kadam bonded with fellow student Kim Gordon, MBA ’13, over their shared love of digital art. For a class project, they developed the idea for an online platform that allowed users to purchase and download digital art to display on Wi-Fi enabled devices. As their idea evolved, the co-founders realized they could turn it into a company.

Although Kadam was hesitant about putting her aerospace plans on hold to launch a digital art platform, she said, “It didn’t make sense to do anything else, but it was a really scary decision. Whether this idea succeeds or fails is on your shoulders, but you’re in a community where everyone’s going through the same thing as you. Without this particular ecosystem and support group, my decision would have been a lot harder.”

Kadam and Gordon launched Mediuum in 2012 and have been working on the startup on a full-time basis. The team recently won the $10K Creative Arts Prize at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.

Many students from across MIT also turn their side projects into startups. Heidi Baumgartner, an MIT physics student in the Class of 2014, always planned to be a research scientist in either the field of physics or electrical engineering. Last summer, in addition to her studies, she started to write a do-it-yourself user manual to accompany a Tesla coil driver board her friends Bayley Wang, MIT ’14, and Daniel Kramnik, MIT ’16, designed and were selling on eBay to teach do-it-yourself hobbyists about electronics.

A Tesla coil is a device that generates a display of high voltage arcs that can play music. The kit Baumgartner and her team created, called oneTesla, comes with the DIY user manual and a coil that shoots two-foot lightning and can be connected to a keyboard.

“The user manual kept growing as I packed in more and more information,” said Baumgartner. “We realized that Kickstarter would be the perfect platform for launching a do-it-yourself Tesla coil kit because of its popularity in the hobbyist community, the very group we wanted to attract.”

In preparation for oneTesla's launch, Baumgartner enrolled in Application of Advanced Entrepreneurial Techniques and spent the fall 2012 semester creating prototypes and negotiating with parts suppliers for their kit’s 100-plus components.

“That was the first time someone called oneTesla a ‘startup,’ which surprised me because I had considered it very much a side project that wouldn't get anywhere,” said Baumgartner about her first experience in an entrepreneurship class at MIT. “I realized then that it could be bigger than my team and I had envisioned.”

The company has since hired seven employees to assemble the kits needed to meet the increasing demand in their online store. Baumgartner is in the process of refining her management and quality control strategies to help her company grow.

While some students like Baumgartner choose to pursue startups in their particular fields, Stephen Messenger and Julien de Wit of MIT’s Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences department became interested in entrepreneurship as a means to explore solutions to societal problems outside of their area of expertise.

Messenger and de Wit are both PhD candidates who came to MIT to study planets outside of the solar system. Though both researchers remain dedicated to the exoplanetary field, their interest in solving problems in everyday life led them towards the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by MIT.

After attending Entrepreneurial Strategy for Engineers during MIT’s Independent Activities Period course, Messenger and de Wit enrolled as listeners in New Enterprises, taught by MIT Sloan senior lecturer Bill Aulet, and Entrepreneurial Strategy, taught by MIT Sloan professor Scott Stern.

“One of the greatest benefits of taking these classes is that we built, step-by-step, a full business plan for the project that we’re working on right now,” said Messenger. “We’re in stealth mode, but our project solves a fundamental need of human beings that has not been properly addressed so far. The solutions competitors currently provide are both incomplete and non-optimal.”

As students from departments all across campus increasingly join the entrepreneurial ecosystem and bring their diverse perspectives to MIT’s startup community, the potential for significant innovation continues to grow.

All MIT students are invited to take entrepreneurship courses at MIT Sloan and utilize the resources at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.