A conversation with Ricard Huguet, MOT ’04, from his start as Director of Innovation for the City of Barcelona, to following his vision of leveraging LEGO robotics for innovation in STEM education in both classrooms and executive suites. Ricard speaks about listening to his customers for ideas, the pivot he made in his company in 2008—in the face of the global economic downturn—and the latest addition of an online platform that has extended his reach exponentially. Ricard also talks about the lessons and confidence he gained from attending MIT Sloan and the lasting value he gets and gives to the MIT community.
Ricard speaks about the saddest day of his life, namely the last day as a student at MIT, and the powerful message he heard, but initially did not understand, from Professor Rebecca Henderson. She reminded him and his classmates about the blessing of attending MIT, which so few in the world can do, and the importance of working for a company that does something for the community. She advised him to either start his own venture or be sure that his values align with the company’s values, but not to settle for less. Ricard also speaks about the resonance of the "Create, Capture, Deliver" framework and how he uses this when assessing either his own business model or start-ups that approach him for advice or investment.
Ricard talks about his investment approach, which starts with the team and then the idea. He speaks about the challenge for him and other investors in managing their portfolios and how he created an organization to help him and others to improve their performance.
Finally, Ricard’s advice to prospective Sloanies is to embrace the ecosystem, live there, enjoy people, get into labs, collaborate with people, and join clubs. MIT is the only top university that did not open campuses around the world, and that is because of the unique network and the special ecosystem that they've been able to create around campus.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie?
Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. I'm your host, Christopher Reichert.
My guest today is Ricard Huguet, a graduate of MIT Sloan's Management of Technology Program, MOT, which has since merged with the Sloan Fellows Program in case MOT does not ring a bell. So, welcome, Ricard.
Ricard Huguet: Thank you for having me here.
Christopher Reichert: Great to have you. So, before we begin on our conversation, let me give some listeners some background. In full disclosure, Ricard and I have been friends since orientation of April 2003 when we converged on campus to learn about the program we were about to embark upon.
So, in my mind, Ricard is a true entrepreneur and innovator. He sees what could be rather than what is. He is the Managing Director of ROBOTIX® Hands-on Learning. He's the founder and executive director of Learn by Doing, a company he founded 17 years ago. He is the president of Fundacion Scientia for Spain and Andorra and all of these organizations are designed to foster innovation, creativity, and teamwork, some using LEGO products, others incorporating robotics, combining the excitement of sports with the rigors of science and technology, and having witnessed the first robotics finals in Atlanta many years ago with Ricard in the Georgia Dome, I can attest firsthand to the excitement level of seeing kids innovate, learn, and achieve.
He was the past president of the Fundacio .CAT, which is the official registrar of the .cat and .barcelona internet domains and straight out of MIT he was the inaugural Director of Innovation for the City of Barcelona. Outside of these official titles Ricard is an investor in startups, real estate, and more. I hope you'll tell us more about that. So, he puts his money where his mouth is when promoting innovation in his everyday life. So, did I miss anything Ricard?
Ricard Huguet: No, I think you covered pretty much everything. Maybe I would add that I'm a big sports fan.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. So let's see where to begin. You know, when I think of LEGO, I think of Ricard. And Learn by Doing started out with the LEGO Mindstorm Robotics. And so, tell us about, you know, the Director of Innovation in Barcelona with that position, and then how that evolved into Learn by Doing?
Ricard Huguet: So, when I was the director of Innovation for the City of Barcelona, I was approached by LEGO because they were trying to find a couple of cities in Europe where to test their products or innovate with customers. So, I got the chance to meet them and convince them to stay in Barcelona. At that time, they were launching a product that was actually built or designed by a professor at MIT, Michael Resnick, at the (MIT) Media Lab, that basically they put electronics into a brick. So that was revolutionary, I thought. From that moment, I started to think and create new business models and new solutions based on that product.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. So let's just step back. So, you graduated in 2004 and were in Cambridge, and I guess you were kind of trying to figure out what to do next. So how did the Director of Innovation happen?
Ricard Huguet: So the city of Barcelona was trying to open that office, which is innovation, which for a city was new. At that time only London had that office. It was hard for them to find someone with that background of innovation. So, they ended up calling at MIT and I was referred from MIT to that position, and I was living in the U.S. I wanted to live there for more years, but I felt that I had to return to my city. So, I took the position and I started from scratch.
Christopher Reichert: So, you're saying you had to suffer and go back and live in Barcelona?
Ricard Huguet: That's correct.
Christopher Reichert: So, you start this new office of innovation, you know, where do you begin to kind of unpack and figure out how to make a city more innovative? What side of innovation are you attacking there?
Ricard Huguet: Our approach was the ecosystem, right? So, if you want to have... something that I learned at MIT. If you want to have an innovative city, you have to have innovative citizens, innovative companies, innovative universities, innovative startups. So, the whole ecosystem needs to stay together and network. So that was basically the two things that I did was to put in value the existing innovation, and the second is networking. I remember one of the first things I created was a digital map with different layers where you could find different layers of innovators, from academics, from companies, from entrepreneurs, so those layers, and so you could see that, that we were an innovative city, it's just that we didn't know.
Christopher Reichert: In some ways you were breaking down, you’re highlighting and then breaking down the silos that were existing in the community.
Ricard Huguet: Yeah, that's correct. And that, I see that it still happens in different places and still in the city. Also, we were at that moment that we needed to, to bring money. So, we created a public VC (Venture Capital) the market brought their own VCs, and so the ecosystem was trying to move in.
Christopher Reichert: You were Director of Innovation for about a year, year and a half, and tell us about the transition to your enterprise.
Ricard Huguet: So, if you wanted to have an innovative city in 20 years' time, I said to the City Hall, it's much, much cheaper to work with the kids and to have an innovative city in 20 years than to pour money into the current system. So that was a vision that I had, and I understand that they had another sense of urgency. So, they wanted to focus on the current system, which we started to fix, but I wanted to invest heavily on the kids. I decided to take my road and build a company focused on building more creative and more innovative kids. My whole focus from that moment on, so now it's 17 years ago, it has been and it is now to build better citizens, to build more innovative citizens, and to build more creative citizens.
Christopher Reichert: You saw this LEGO product spun out of MT Media Lab. Did LEGO have a presence in Catalonia or in Spain?
Ricard Huguet: No, no. LEGO has a division called Lego Education. So LEGO had a strong presence in Spain, but LEGO Education had none. That's a branch of the company that it's dedicated to, basically to foster the STEM in kids, they did not have any representation, but I was not interested in selling their products. So, I was interested in developing a service model based on their products. I was fascinated by their products, and I was shocked by the impact that these products could have. I went to Denmark and I went to visit other cities where LEGO Education had some robotics centers inside science museums. I approached the museums and I said, how many kids do you have at the end of the year? I thought that the numbers were quite slow and we could improve that.
I asked for the license for these robotics centers for Spain. We changed the model and instead of installing that in museums, we put that on vans. We called it Robotics on Wheels, and we hit the road and visited two or three schools every day with two or three different vans. Easily we would get up to a hundred thousand kids a year. So that was almost the same number of kids they had in several museums in the whole year in different countries. I changed that model because... so my idea was that the kids were the ones that they get the benefit, the schools, they get the benefits, and they were, I asked for money from companies to support that idea. So, there was kind of fundraising, and so I get the money from the companies and I get the service for free for the schools. That was the kind of the breakthrough, I would say.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. So you were less dependent on kind of an arduous grant-making process through government and could go through companies that were seeking innovative innovations?
Ricard Huguet: Yeah, correct. That was, but it ended up that the surveys or the solution was had so many impact that even the administrations, they were interested later on. We had a combination of foundations, corporate social responsibility of large companies and the administration that were supporting these type of projects that we still do in massive numbers, now on a more digital approach, if you want to, but the model is still the same.
Christopher Reichert: And so then you also branched out into corporate trainings, I guess if you could, if you could say.
Ricard Huguet: Yeah, that was an idea from a customer. One customer said to me, wow, I really like what you do with the kids. Do you think that my management team would perform better or worse than the kids? I said, I don't know, let's try it. So we try it and we've been able to see that that was almost the same, to do it. So the methodology was strong enough to support either corporate managers or kids.
Christopher Reichert: And then 2008 came along, 2009 with the economic downturn that affected the world. How did you respond to that and how did that affect you?
Ricard Huguet: That was a big hit because majority of our customers, as I said, were either administration or foundations. We have a large number of customers with, they were foundations from banks. I remember one day receiving seven faxes saying, we cancel your project, we cancel your project, we cancel your project. So, all of a sudden we lost like almost 2 million Euros in contracts. And that was basically the revenues of the company at that moment. So we had no customers and there was no chances that we will have them back, right? Because they changed their structure and then, they were in a big crisis. So, what we did, I got all the employees, and I said, look, we have some money in the bank, we are going to invest that money in several different business models. We’ll see if we can survive. Let's try different business models.
We went to different countries like Qatar or Arabia or Dubai, and we opened an e-commerce. Remember I said I didn't want to sell the product, I just wanted the service. I started to sell the products and it was successful, and then we opened a service of after school clubs. So, we were successful on that in less than two years we had five different business models altogether. They were more or less the same revenue as we had two years ago. But split into five different models, which business models, gave us more complexity. But we've been very lucky to be successful on those tries.
Christopher Reichert: What was the acronym that Ken Morse once told us at MIT? CFIMITYM. “Cashflow is more important than your mother!”
Ricard Huguet: I still have that written in my office, which is really, really important.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, absolutely. Let's step back to Sloan now that we've started that conversation. Is there anything—so besides “cash flow is more important than your mother”—is there anything that you learned at Sloan that you use most often today?
Ricard Huguet: Well, let me explain it, one thing. I think that everything started when my last hour at MIT. I don't know if you remember, but we had the last lesson from Rebecca Henderson. She said to us, and I was really impressed by that, she said to us, “you are really lucky, you are really blessed to study at MIT. Only a few number of citizens of the world have this and are so fortunate of studying here.” And then she said, “so do not go and work for any company that does not do something for the community. Either start your own thing or be sure that you align your values to the companies that do these types of things.” At that moment, I honestly, I didn't understand what she was saying, but somehow this resonated inside of me. That's one of the main things that pushed me on building that company.
Another thing for sure, I would say that the search of a, which is related to that, the search of a purpose, I don't understand a company that doesn't have a purpose. And if I have to say another one, it's one of the things that impacted me more is that when I left MIT I said, look, who else is going to build a company? What other training, what other network do you need to have in order to set up a company? So you have all the superpowers that you need to start up a company. So what else do you need? And that's why, so you give me that profound sense of yes, you can do it. And that's, I think it's the most valuable thing I learned from MIT.
Christopher Reichert: And I think you've been particularly successful in, even from a distance, 3000 plus miles away from Cambridge, in keeping contact with MIT, some Sloan professors. So tell us about how you maintain those relationships and also cultivate that connection with MIT from so far away?
Ricard Huguet: Well, I have a recipe for that, right? So if you have a house in Barcelona, so that's easy, right, to maintain because you just send out an invitation, said “Hey, I'm living in Barcelona, who wants to come and visit me?” So I actually think I had like 60% or 65% of my classmates at home. I'm very proud of that record.
Also, I think the best thing you have when you go to MIT is the people that you are with, even though if it's not just your classmates, it's just the ecosystem. So tapping into that ecosystem, and something also that is very important that I learned is that the more you give, the more you get, right? So this is something that I'm very fond of this sentence. I try to give anything I have to the ecosystem. And I, and then I receive three times what I give and that it always work for me. So maybe that's one of the reasons why I have so many relations with my colleagues.
Christopher Reichert: And thinking back on the classes that you took, is there any that you feel like you would want to go back and redo or, or do for the first time?
Ricard Huguet: I loved the strategy classes. I love it. So I remember one framework that I still use very often, which is the Create, Capture, Deliver framework. So, I only see the companies on that, on those three lanes, right? Create value, capture value, and deliver the value. So that's something that is still helped me a lot. I loved it, when I did my thesis with Professor Ed Roberts, he told me a lot of things besides the thesis, right? For example, I had some difficult situations doing my thesis, and he said, well, stand up for your thoughts and fight for your ideas. And that was a strong learning from him.
Christopher Reichert: This is Ed Roberts, right?
Ricard Huguet: Ed Roberts. And also I learned one thing that I recommend to many people, if they can hear, if you can follow Ken Morse, he was our sales teacher. Every year I put all my sales force to his programs. He showed me a lot, and he's still giving good advice on how to sell because the P&L of the company starts by sales. You really need to focus on sales and how to do sales, because now every day is more complicated and it's more sophisticated. So you need to be up to date on how to put a methodology on your sales team.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. So, it's 2010, 2011. You've had these five business areas. How about now? How has it changed in the last say 10 years since then?
Ricard Huguet: I pretty much live with those five business models. So I, it was kind of safe because when you outperform in one business unit, then you maybe fall back on other business unit. So at the end of the year, we were pretty stable in terms of financials. But then just before the COVID, we started to digitalize the company, and then we enter an impact fund. So that's one of these funds, investment funds, that is has to focus one of the, of course, the financial performance and the other is the impact that you create on society. So I like these guys.
Christopher Reichert: This is in Barcelona? This is an impact fund that you essentially kind of applied to be a part of?
Ricard Huguet: Yeah, exactly. So we made an alliance, so they put money in the company. So we basically digitalized the business model, which is the going to schools and helping them to innovate, be creative through robotics, LEGO, and non-LEGO products. So we put in a structure decoding creativity, problem solving those digital skills on three dimensions. We put up a software that monitors the learning of the kids on an adaptive wave. We don't believe that kids they all learn at the same pace. So, we put software that takes a lot of care of the learnings of the kids in those areas, like coding, problem solving in general, digital skills. We invested a lot of money on that software, and we are spreading out this solution, and now we have really good results.
Christopher Reichert: So, what's the source of the inputs that go into tracking the progress of a child?
Ricard Huguet: We always start by a challenge. We need to challenge kids in a very openly way. So we, here is the challenge, here is the problem. We need you to solve that, and we need you to solve in teams, teams of two, teams of three. And so kids, they have an enormous creativity, but if you look at the system, so we don't call for the creativity of the kids in the system, in the educational system. So we tap on that creativity that they have. We ask them questions and questions and questions until they get into a solution. And they, the nice thing of that is that they have to build the solutions. They have to build the solution. They have to code the solution. And so they build kind of a machine that solves that problem, right? Even I love that example, but even I ask them sometimes, so why don't you build a sunflower that follows the sun? We don't tell them, but they know they need to put a sensor, light sensor, and they need to put an engine, they need to put a motor. So in a class, you have 24 different sunflowers, all of them following the sun. So it shows the creativity, but it shows the capacity of giving a solution to a problem that I'm giving to them.
Christopher Reichert: So I guess this comes to the scalability challenge of your business, right? With LEGO on wheels, there's only so many trucks and teachers you can send out to schools. So how have you kind of transitioned over to a digital line of business?
Ricard Huguet: Yeah, that's, I go back to my purpose. I said, so my purpose as a company is to build better citizens with the entrance of the impact fund. So we had that mission of doing the things that we were doing to get much bigger outreach. So digitalization is the only way. So instead of having tracks and people, we have another method, which is a software and teacher training. So we can train the teachers in the schools and put a software so we can monitor all the kids from a platform so we can reach places in the world that we could not reach with our vans or our trucks, right? So that is the magic of the digitalization and you can help so many people getting the advantage of that. And also, we still keep the system that companies can pay for underserved communities. So people that would never, ever have that opportunity is now having that. So it's magic.
Christopher Reichert: So how have you built the pedagogy of this educational system? In other words, like how does it meet the standards of different school districts and metrics?
Ricard Huguet: So we benchmark and we actually got the system from the Computer Science Teachers Association from the U.S. that they set a really nice standard list. Actually surprising, there are few number of standards approaching this problem. So we got in contact with them, we got the standard, we built a curriculum of those skills, and then we kind of designed the activities that the kids need to solve in order to meet those skills. So when we have that in place, then we connect that with either it's a 3D printer or it's a robot or whatever it is. But if we go from what do they need to learn? How do they need to learn? Which was normally, I don't know why, and that system was the other way around.
Christopher Reichert: This leads to my, kind of in my thoughts, is that what I said earlier is that you know, the innovation, you're an innovative person, that you see what could be, not just what is. Tell me about other activities, that your other investments, whether it's in startups or other ways that you are looking to kind of create a better world or see something new, take advantage of some new innovation?
Ricard Huguet: Just by being in that role of innovation, you get, you're blessed and you know a lot of people and they come to and share with you some ideas and some projects. And so besides of falling in love with the idea, I normally fall in love with the teams, right? So I see a team that has an OK idea. I try to invest with them, right? But if they have a great idea and they have the capacity and the willingness, and so I'm really fond of it. I go from either so hard wind sails for big vessels…so they save a lot of petrol and energy because they move around just with hard sails, peer-to-peer car sharing systems, systems that save water, or companies that make more efficient the energy systems now.
Christopher Reichert: Are you doing this as an individual investor or do you do it as kind of an angel team of other investors that you throw into a pile and pick the ones you like?
Ricard Huguet: Well, the thing is that I had so many opportunities and I had to put order on that. I met so many people that were in the same situation, that they had opportunities for investing, but they didn't have the time to really go deep on that and study those and following those, right, which is also as important and give them advice and give them care and time.
So I met a lot of people that they, and actually they were failing in some of the investments because the lack of time. So I set up an organization that basically helps actually successful entrepreneurs that they're very successful on their businesses, but they don't have time to follow on their own investments. So I gather all of them. I created an organization that gives services to those people that want to invest either from real estate or money in the bank or investing in startups. These three, we cover these three areas.
We help those people that are really good, they're really good entrepreneurs, but they don't have time to manage their own money or their own wealth. And I ask them, do you know how much you have? A lot of times the answer is no, I don't know. And I ask them, do you know how much you made last year through your investments? They said, no, I don't know. So you are my customer now!
Christopher Reichert: That's great. So you're now, and I guess what I would sounds like the third phase of Learned by Doing, which was the first was taking robotics on wheels. The second was fanning out into five different business lines, and the third is now with digitizing and scaling up. How do you see the next five years?
Ricard Huguet: So I'm really focused on spreading out this system, which I think is unique and we are seeing the benefits and how the kids are learning. So that's, that's actually my goal is scaling that, bringing that to the U.S., bringing that to other countries that are interested. So scaling up, this is really, really important. And if I can use that opportunity, if anyone from MIT or the community that is interested in education, in changing the world in and helping me to spread that opportunity, I would love to work with them. Actually, that we saw the impact of the chatGPT for example, how this is going to transform education. We really need to teach the kids how to ask questions to that system. And that's one of the challenges that we have.
Christopher Reichert: So some parting words. What's your personal definition of success?
Ricard Huguet: Success is to me is when you achieve your own goal, not someone else's goal. When you achieve your goal, you said, I want to be there. And when you are there, that's success. Nothing else.
Christopher Reichert: And what about advice for prospective Sloanies?
Ricard Huguet: So this is a unique experience. You have to take time to meet the people. And if you see, MIT is the only top university that did not open campuses around the world, which was asked for from many countries. And that is because the special network on the special ecosystem that they've been able to create around campus. So I would say live there, enjoy people, know people, get into labs, collaborate with people, join clubs. This is the ecosystem and the saddest moment in my life, and you didn't ask me for that, is the day that I left MIT because I saw that I was not an MIT student anymore. When you are a student of MIT, you have all the doors open. Literally you can call any CEO in the world and they will open, they will answer you when you are. When you lose the status of MIT student, nobody answers your calls.
Christopher Reichert: Well, I think it's, look not quite that harsh, but do you remember after we graduated that summer, I think we had lobster, what? Every other day, maybe twice a day. And every make and form steamed, fried, grilled sashimi lobster tail….
Ricard Huguet: I remember, I remember that with the Japanese. And then they said “No, this one is dead, so we cannot have sashimi.” I remember that!
Christopher Reichert: Well, with that, thank you very much to Ricardo Huguet, Sloan Class of 2004. I hope we can enjoy a New England clambake again soon. So thank you for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies.
Ricard Huguet: And thank you, Christopher, for the great job you're doing for spreading out the Sloanies and the community. Thank you very much.
Christopher Reichert: Thank you.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations and MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan.