When Tim Rowe, MBA ’95, CEO and founder of Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) and CIC Health, decided to leave Boston Consulting Group after four years and return to Cambridge, he knew he wanted to start his own business—he just wasn’t sure what this business would be.
“I am a firm believer in businesses falling into their next thing,” said Rowe. “It’s great to have a business plan, but also just be ready for the world to teach you.”
Rowe spoke about the wisdom of falling into the next thing and other topics with Dean David Schmittlein, a live audience in Wong Auditorium, and virtual attendees during the iLead Speaker Series on March 30. The event was co-hosted by the MIT Sloan Office of the Dean and Office of External Relations.
Falling into the next thing
Falling into the next thing was precisely what happened to Rowe—twice. The first time was after he became the de facto real estate manager for several startups run by his fellow Sloanies, a role he and Andy Olmsted, MBA ’95, transformed into CIC, which remains a preeminent startup incubator in Kendall Square and around the world 23 years later.
The second time was more recent, when Rowe and his CIC colleagues found themselves experimenting with innovative Covid-19 safety ideas amid an ongoing global pandemic that saw major companies and their employees prefer hybrid or fully remote work instead of coming into the office.
“We had millions of square feet around the world that suddenly weren’t being utilized. It was one of those key moments where we were like, ‘What do we do?’” said Rowe. “If we had done nothing, that would not have painted a pretty picture for us as a business. We probably wouldn’t have been able to meet our obligations to pay rent, among other things.”
CIC initially offered free coronavirus testing to the people using their facilities. While this didn’t make much of a dent in terms of bringing office workers back, people started asking if CIC could help conduct testing in their kids' schools. Rowe teamed up with public expert Dr. Atul Gawande and forged a collaboration with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to extend their cost-effective testing apparatus to K-12 schools. This resulting effort became known as CIC Health, a new health tech company dedicated to meeting the growing demand for testing at schools and other organizations throughout New England and the country.
“We became, I think, one of the largest testing and, later, mass vaccination site operators in the country,” said Rowe, who also noted that the success of the company went far beyond his expectations. “There are some important learnings we have taken from it along the way.”
Everywhere and all the time
Rowe offered the iLead audience these recent key learnings, as well as additional lessons learned from what he humbly described as “20 years of making mistakes” throughout his entrepreneurial career. The first of these concerned what he considered to be one of the most important aspects of both entrepreneurship and leadership: experimenting with new things.
“We have built many new businesses over the years that have spun out from our core business. Some of them have failed miserably, but many of them have been successful,” said Rowe. “And they all started with somebody saying, ‘You know what? Maybe we should try this.’ The key is to be comfortable knowing that new initiatives may not work out.”
The second lesson stemmed from a question Dean Schmittlein asked about the importance of the relationships Rowe made during his time in the MIT Sloan MBA program. As Rowe described it, the significance of these connections is “everywhere and all the time.”
“You’re going to need to go to [a place like] Dubai at some point to grow your business. There’s going to be somebody you can call and that somebody is going to move mountains for you,” he said.
“That’s what you get from MIT Sloan, so make sure you invest in that—and make sure you’re that person if you’re the one in Dubai. Open the doors for your fellow Sloanies. You won’t regret it.”