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Better Jobs for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Workers in a Post-Pandemic World

“With Covid-19, the future of work became the present,” said New Profit Partner Angela Jackson in a recent conversation with Quartz.com reporter Anne Quito.

Angela Jackson

“We realized that many jobs disappeared overnight … and that any training we offered around the future of work needed to be rapid, cost efficient, and time efficient.”

New Profit is a Boston-based venture-philanthropy organization that backsbreakthrough social entrepreneurs who are advancing equity and opportunity in the U.S. Jackson, a member of MIT Solve’s Challenge Leadership Group for Good Jobs & Inclusive Entrepreneurship, is also New Profit’s point person for a new two-year, six-million-dollar ideas competition called The Future of Work Grand Challenge.

Launched in collaboration with MIT Solve and the L.A.-based XPrize Foundation, the challenge calls for teams to generate inventive job-training solutions that can be scaled up rapidly to train and place 25,000 pandemic-displaced workers into living-wage jobs. “What we’re hoping to do is offer validated solutions that are proven to help people not just to upskill, but to actually find jobs,” Jackson told Quartz.

Better careers in months, not years
The nature of work has been in flux for decades, and mainstream undergraduate programs have largely failed to equip workers for high-demand professions that don’t require four-year degrees. Thought leaders such as MIT Sloan Principle Research Scientist Andrew MacAfee and MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson have called for better alignment of pathways to current and future employment—pathways that match affordable, efficient skills training to growing categories of unfilled jobs. Brynjolfsson also serves as a mentor and judge for many MIT Solve challenges.

As part of The Future of Work Grand Challenge, MIT Solve is running the six-month Re-imaging Pathways to Employment in the U.S. competition to crowdsource paradigm-shifting initiatives designed to help unemployed and underemployed workers transition to better careers in the new economy. The call for submissions places special emphasis on solutions that advance racial justice, inclusion, and equity in non-coastal states and U.S. interior regions. Successful solutions will direct resources and support to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx entrepreneurs and innovators and enable learners to make informed decisions about which pathways and jobs suit them.

Submissions are due November 9, 2020, and finalists, who will be supported with virtual coaching sessions, will pitch their concepts on January 24–26, 2021. Winners will have access to a $625,000 prize pool to help launch their solutions.









LabCentral to Advance Biomanufacturing Ventures in Kendall Square

LabCentral 238 at 238 Main Street in Kendall Square will open in the fall of 2021. Photo credit: Encore & Perkins+Will

Already dubbed the most innovative square mile on earth, Kendall Square is about to add another notch to its ingenuity quotient. LabCentral has announced its intention to essentially double its Kendall Square footprint in 2021 with the establishment of a new incubator focused on scale-up biomanufacturing. LabCentral 238—the name is a nod to its 238 Main Street address—will feature 100K square feet of shared office and laboratory space where companies can conduct process development studies. Unlike the original LabCentral incubator, LabCentral 238 will host startups that have cleared preliminary research hurdles and are headed eventually for clinical trials. The new venture will be developed on a site located on two floors of the 100-year-old Kendall Building. Distinguished by its historic clock tower, the building is being expanded to 12 stories with an adjacent addition. The German pharmaceutical powerhouse Bayer AG is expected to occupy a large swath of the space.

Astellas Pharma invests $12.5M in LabCentral 238
The LabCentral 238 initiative is made possible by a $12.5M investment from Tokyo-based pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma and a grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. MIT Sloan Fellows Program alumnus Percival Baretto-Ko SF ’11 is Astellas Pharma president. The company will invest an additional $450K over three years to become a Gold Sponsor of LabCentral’s existing Kendall Square incubator at 700 Main Street, which has grown rapidly since it was established in 2013.

LabCentral 238 will make prototypes of the drugs on a fast track and at a lower cost. The drugs won’t meet the standards needed for clinical trials, but if a product seems promising, the startup will pay manufacturers to produce them at the necessary standard for clinical trials. Producing lower-cost prototypes at a faster rate will mean a greater number of life-saving drugs have a chance of reaching consumers sooner.

LabCentral takes inspiration from the energy of its neighborhood at the edge of the MIT campus and the legacy of innovation that preceded its tenancy. Its 700 Main Street location is the very place where Thomas A. Watson received that legendary first long-distance phone call in the 1800s. A century later, Polaroid founder Edwin Land established an office here. Today, more than 300 scientists and entrepreneurs from 70 startups rent lab benches and office space at 700 Main.

“We need more access to innovative startup companies,” Yoshitsugu Shitaka, president of the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine, recently told the Boston Globe, “especially in the cell therapy and gene therapy space.” The two LabCentral incubators should do just that. Young biotech enterprises are drawn to the extraordinary amenities, including access to millions of dollars in laboratory equipment and face time with local drug developers. For global biotech companies like Astellas, the LabCentral cluster is a hothouse worth watching.

Read the Boston Globe article on LabCentral 238.

MITii’s New Proto Ventures Program Puts the Problem First

The MIT Innovation Initiative—often referred to as MITii—is launching a Proto Ventures Program to generate pioneering new companies using a process unlike anything else in higher education. Program leaders will recruit subject experts to explore transformational technologies and the resulting business opportunities that follow. “Turning ideas into impact is a really big part of MIT,” says MIT Sloan professor Fiona Murray, MITii codirector. “Enabling our community to do that more effectively has always been the core of the Innovation Initiative.”

Fiona Murray, MITii Codirector

The guiding mission of the Proto Ventures Program is to “systematically discover, experiment, mature, and launch new transformative technology ventures capable of having extraordinarily positive impact on the world.”The program also will help MITii fulfill its goal of educating entrepreneurs, translating ideas to impact, communicating new information, and promoting diversity. “We try to be the tide that raises all ships of innovation at MIT,” MITii Executive Director Gene Keselman says, “whether it be helping existing programs with resources or creating new programs where there are gaps.”

The “venture builders” who will be hired in connection with the Proto Ventures Program will connect authentic real-world problems with MIT experts, resources, and support systems to create a “proto venture.” The idea is to give those venture builders the latitude to explore the spectrum of needs in a given field, tapping experts across the MIT community to create marketable solutions.

What sets it apart
How is the Proto Ventures Program different from other entrepreneurial efforts? It puts the problem first. “Normally, students or faculty have an idea for a business, and they pitch that idea. Then there’s a panel that decides on the ones they’ll bet on,” says MITii codirector Michael Cima. “That’s a tried-and-true method for doing things. But there’s a whole other way, and that’s to start with a blank sheet and a problem area and ask, ‘What are the business opportunities?’”

Murray adds, “In many cases, the degree to which real-world problems match these research solutions depends on having a human agent in the system: the graduate student at the right time in their career or the faculty member knowing someone who can be the entrepreneur. So the venture builder is a new kind of human agent who can have a broad understanding of a particular problem domain. Rather than being confined to a singular solution, they can explore the solution space and start to coalesce possible proto ventures in those areas.”

MITii has begun accepting applications for a domain expert who will work at the intersection of artificial intelligence and healthcare, a collaboration between a new research program called J-Clinic and the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The project will be a pilot for future Proto Ventures collaborations.

Learn more about the Proto Ventures Program.

Read the MIT News article about the Proto Ventures Program

Lighting the world: MIT graduate student invents scalable solar

It’s tough to be competitive within the global marketplace when your company languishes for large spans of time off the power grid, but it’s a problem that people in many developing nations face. In his native Zimbabwe, Prosper Nyovanie says that life was continually lived in work-around mode as frequent electricity outages plagued the country. Realizing how crippling this was to Zimbabwe’s economic culture, Nyovanie set about looking for a solution. He found it in a scalable solar electric system that expands with demand.

Nyovanie, who majored in mechanical engineering as an MIT undergraduate, discovered his calling when he took the course Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, which explored the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. The experience inspired him to minor in energy studies and eventually led to the birth of Voya Sol, the company he cofounded to enable individuals to build their own solar energy micro-grids from the bottom-up.

As an undergraduate, Nyovanie took on a UROP with Martin Culpepper in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and realized that the success of his ideas were rooted at the intersection of business and technology. In a recent interview with MIT News he recalled, “One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions. But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”

Now a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is building that pivotal combination of skills. Through the LGO program, he will earn an MBA from MIT Sloan and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow in the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

Global fieldwork in key markets

Before cofounding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at renewable energy company SunEdison as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. He rotated between different roles at the company around the world, including a stint as a project engineer overseeing the development of rural mini-grids in Tanzania. When SunEdison declared bankruptcy, Nyovanie continued his discussions with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo.

Nyovanie believes that their scalable, personalized solar solution is the first of its kind. If all goes according to plan, they will provide customers with all the components necessary to independently assemble a solar energy system that can power their own homes, connect to their neighbors’ systems, or even build out a community grid. The first country to test the product? Zimbabwe, of course.

Creating food desert oases: Harvard and MIT innovators pitch options

In large swaths of the world, including the United States, urban areas are plagued with food deserts—places where residents have little or no access to affordable, nutritious food. In fact, 40+ million Americans now live in 6,500 food deserts that have been identified across the country. As a result, they also live with significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The winners of the 2018 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize have developed inventive solutions to this dilemma, which has defied 21st-century governments and NGOs.

EatWell, a team of students and agribusiness experts representing the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, won the $15,000 first prize with their plan to bring healthier meal options to low-income communities. They are developing simple, low-cost meal kits that can be sold in food deserts. The team’s test market is Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood where 60 percent of families fall into the low-income category and are served by a single grocery store. Consequently, only a third of all Mattapan residents have access to affordable, nutritious food.

EatWell’s process is to survey residents about meal preferences. A professional chef and dietitian then work together to create simple, healthy, quick-to-table recipes. In Mattapan, that meant a chicken pot pie dish chock full of vegetables and a Haitian pork dish. The $15 kits cost far less than competitors like Blue Apron, in part because they aren’t shipped and don’t have in-box refrigeration.

Crowdsourcing the wisdom of farmers in Africa

The $10,000 second prize went to Context Insights, an outgrowth of a class project in the MIT Sloan course Opportunities in Developing Economies taught by Tavneet Suri. Suri, an associate professor of applied economics, is also scientific director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Africa and the cochair of J-PAL’s agriculture sector. Context Insight’s idea is to crowd-source crop-price predictions from farmers in Africa and aggregate that data for governments and microfinance institutions so that they can increase crop investments that alleviate market volatility.

Context Insights uses the wisdom of savvy local farmers to forecast the price of basic commodities like maize, commodities that are critical to life in sub-Saharan Africa. The team is now piloting the platform with the East Africa Exchange, the largest regional commodity exchange in East Africa. Its goal is to connect the owners of small farms to agricultural and financial markets.

The Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize is sponsored by Rabobank and supported by Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club.

Learn more about the Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

Read a related story in MIT News.

Innovation must be more innovative

Johanna Hising DiFabio
Assistant Dean, Sloan Fellows & EMBA Programs

“Innovation needs to become more innovative,” John Thornhill, wrote in the Financial Times not too long ago. Innovation editor at FT, Thornhill said he thought MIT had a good shot at achieving that goal with The Engine, the startup accelerator the Institute recently launched to support complex breakthrough technologies.

MIT President Rafael Reif has called such complex technologies “tough-tech”—potentially significant innovations that aim to solve thorny challenges but have a longer road to market than, say, a customer-service app or a smart screwdriver. As a result, advances that could turn out to be life-changing might never go forward because investors are discouraged by the prospect of a lengthy development time frame.

The Engine portends the future

Katie Rae, President and CEO of The Engine, comes to the project with extensive experience as an entrepreneur and a leader of innovation accelerators. In fact, The Boston Globe once dubbed Rae “the high-profile ringmaster of Boston’s startup circus.” She told MIT News that she believes The Engine portends the future. “Ten years from now, this will be seen as a groundbreaking model, recognized around the world for creating both a vibrant set of funds and the programs that founders need to create high-impact companies.”

Rae oversees both The Engine’s investment component, which includes $150 million in early-stage funding, and the shared services component, which gives prospective entrepreneurs access to legal, licensing, technical, and administrative services as well as capital-intensive equipment.

For this new series of blog posts, we spoke with MIT Sloan professors Pierre Azoulay and Scott Stern about the latest entrepreneurial wisdom. We also asked MIT Sloan Fellows MBA program alumni Abhi Yadav, Snejina Zacharia, Kiren Kumar, and Ray Leach to share what they’ve learned along their storied entrepreneurial journeys. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an executive in a multinational corporation, I think you’ll find their knowledge and perspectives eye-opening. And if you worry that you’re too old to act on your entrepreneurial dream, take note of Pierre Azoulay’s research about the median age of successful entrepreneurs—hint, a bit of gray hair doesn’t hurt.

— Johanna Hising DiFabio

Starting a business? Build a Team as Unbeatable as Your Product

Snejina Zacharia, SF’13, has channeled 20 years of experience in both the intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial trenches into the creation of Insurify, a virtual insurance agent powered by artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Insurify provides car, home, and life insurance quotes from all major carriers in under three minutes. As founder and CEO, Zacharia has propelled the business into entrepreneurial stardom in just five years. After a 250% growth spurt last year—and multiple innovation awards—Insurify is now the most comprehensive insurance marketplace in the US.

Yes, the idea is a clear winner, but Zacharia attributes other factors to the success of her enterprise. For starters, she says, it takes a team. Zacharia pulled together a group of tech stars—many of them with major industry street cred. “Build the right team from the start,” she counsels new entrepreneurs. “This is something you must get right from the outset. And that team must be 100% committed. You will go through ups and downs, and you need a founding team that shares the perseverance that you have—must have—to make a go of it.”

Zacharia notes that it’s not just the management team that must be aligned around the company vision. Every single employee should be committed to the mission and goals of the organization. “Hiring the right people, people who have bought into the vision and can see the big picture, people who are invested, who believe in the value of what they’re working toward—those people are absolutely essential to the future of your business.”

Be selective about investors

Zacharia wants investors to be all-in, too. “Look for someone who feels like a partner. You’ll want an investor who truly believes in your business idea and is prepared to provide follow-on funding at the next stage. Founders need to do their due diligence as much as investors do. Make sure to get references from their best performing portfolio companies—as well as from their less well performing companies. The latter is even more important.”

Zacharia emphasizes the importance of finding investors with domain expertise. “Often, the best investors will be those who have funded companies with similar business models and understand the drivers important for your success. In my case, I was looking for investors with strong knowledge of the insurance industry and of the possibilities presented by artificial intelligence. It has been a wonderful experience to grow Insurify with super-smart investors who are dedicated to our long-term success.”

Be a smart networker

Zacharia has one last tip for those with new-enterprise dreams—tap your network. “Networking is important for business development, fundraising, and team building,” she notes. “When I started Insurify, I data-mined LinkedIn profiles and leveraged the MIT brand to set up meetings with insurance executives. I was surprised how many people were willing to take a meeting with me, both because of my MIT connection and because of the promise of the technology we were building. Creating a marketplace is tough. Carriers want customers and customers want a product that provides value. It took hundreds of meetings and calls until I was able to sign the first contract, and the hard work paid off when the other carriers followed.”

Developing Insurify, Zacharia adds, has been the most rewarding job of her life, but the challenges of those crucial early years were not inconsequential. “Great things take time. You need perseverance and an unerring focus on the big picture. And you need to be able to keep it all in perspective and enjoy the journey.”

Women entrepreneurs say #MeToo

One of the quieter voices of the #Me Too movement is beginning to find its voice—women entrepreneurs—and Ray Leach, SF ’02, is eager to provide a megaphone. Leach is the founding CEO of JumpStart Inc. The Cleveland, Ohio-based nonprofit venture development organization has earned a national best-in-class reputation for innovative economic development models. One of those models is creating support systems for women entrepreneurs.

“It’s tough enough for any entrepreneur to raise capital,” Leach says. “For women, it’s even more discouraging. Only 2.7 % of venture capital investment goes to female-founded businesses.” Leach has made it one of JumpStart’s missions to boost that number. Recently, the organization held an event “The Female Founders’ Guide to Raising Capital” to bring together female entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to discuss the state of funding for women who are launching startups. Leach and his team invited both male and female investors in the hopes of hearing a broad range of perspectives.

“It took us a month to find a female investor for the panel,” Leach recalls. “That was a jarring reminder to the JumpStart team that there is still work to be done in balancing the gender scales in the investing space.” Leach cites industry data indicating that just three percent of US startups backed by venture capital are led by women—and only one percent are headed by African Americans. By contrast, he notes, nearly 90 percent of all venture capital investment professionals are Caucasian men.”

The activist who served as catalyst

Leach points out that the #MeToo movement really began in the venture capital community in 2012 when Ellen Pao sued Kleiner Perkins, where she was an investment partner, for sexual discrimination. “The case brought attention to the cause and provided momentum for the venture and tech startup industry to begin owning up to the cold, hard realities facing women and non-white males in the startup world.” Pao, who went on to serve as an interim CEO at Reddit, embraced her role as an activist and went on to found the diversity consulting nonprofit Project Include.

Leach notes that Pao’s wake-up call set off a chain-reaction of efforts across multiple industries that have resulted in what he calls “a reckoning,” where almost everyone in the venture world now acknowledges the problem. “People across the venture capital industry are now recognizing the issues that have persisted for decades. They know they are real, and they’re identifying actions, individuals, organizations, and institutions to address the challenges and make things better. Overall, I’m encouraged that we’re seeing progress, but we shouldn’t relax our vigilance. The problem is far from fixed.”

Leach remains committed to the cause. Right now, JumpStart’s $10M Focus Fund is investing capital exclusively in Ohio-based female and minority-led tech startups. Meanwhile, a 2017 grant from the KeyBank Foundation has helped JumpStart launch the KeyBank Business Boost & Build program, which has already distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to grassroots organizations dedicated to providing loans and technical assistance to women and minority business owners.

Read Ray Leach’s blog post in the Huffington Post about the importance of diversity in entrepreneurship and across the greater culture.


Change—It’s the only constant

As Assistant Managing Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), Kiren Kumar, SF ’12, has seen a good many enterprises come and go, thrive and crash, slowly grow and gradually wither. The common denominator of the thriving enterprises, he noted, were leaders who were both versatile and persistent.

The world is always in a state of flux, markets are continually changing, technology is perpetually evolving, and a smart entrepreneur is ready to change with it, Kumar says. If consumers, en masse, have begun to use their phones as flashlights, for example, a flat, phone-sized flashlight is probably not about to take the market by storm. “When you start something new,” he points out, “you must be prepared to continually innovate, rethink, pivot, and change direction as need be. You must match your product or service to the current realities of the marketplace.”

Persistence of vision

Kumar has advised multinational corporations on their Asian strategies and helped Singapore-based companies expand into the Asian, European, and American markets. He has observed leaders at every stage of leadership. “The best leaders have the sympathy of their teams in good times and bad,” Kumar says. “They have the people skills to shepherd their employees through the tumultuous journey that most startups take. If leaders model persistence and an unwavering belief in their missions, their employees are more likely to share that persistence.”

But persistence isn’t possible, Kumar says, without passion. “Founders must not just be positive about the ventures they are launching, they must be passionate about the value it provides. It’s that passion that fuels the persistence and enables the flexibility. True passion is contagious and spreads across the team, it spreads to investors, to the media and, of course, to consumers.”

Have a little humility

Finally, Kumar underlines an observation that Einstein once made: “A true genius admits he knows nothing.” That humility, he says, is a common trait of the best entrepreneurs.

“Founders—as with all leaders—must realize they don’t have all the answers. If you are honest with your team about the ups and downs, ready to admit what you don’t know, and open to learning what you need to know, you will earn the respect of those around you. Even more important, you will empower others to exercise humility and admit the things they don’t know and reach out for the information they need to make decisions. Bottom line: a little humility goes a long way on a journey with many twists and turns—and that pretty much characterizes any new enterprise.”

Here’s to a kinder, gentler entrepreneur

“As founders of startups, we’ve all had the same basic message drilled into our heads since we first learned to spell the word entrepreneurship: take big risks and be fearless,” says Abhi Yadav, SF ’13, founder and CEO of ZyloTech. When he is asked to give advice to new entrepreneurs, however, those ideas don’t make the first cut—or even the second. “To my mind, the two most important skills in an entrepreneur are also two of the most underappreciated—empathy and gratitude.”

Yadav realizes that a few hardcore business types might roll their eyes at his priorities, but as a venerable entrepreneur and an occasional judge for the MIT $100K, his instincts and experience speak for themselves. Yadav is on a mission to put the humanity back into enterprise. “Let’s take a breath and dial back the whole arrogance thing that has come to be associated with entrepreneurship and increase the human quotient. If you don’t have empathy—strong empathy—with your clients, employees, and investors, you might be able to launch a promising enterprise, but you’ll never progress over the long term.”

Yadav believes that the same goes for gratitude. “Always be grateful for everyone who is helping you to realize the vision you hold for your company. Without the employees, clients, and shareholders who are invested in the success of your enterprise, it cannot thrive. That network is a powerful factor in both your existing enterprise and in future projects, so never take it for granted.”

You can’t fake empathy

Yadav adds that that both the gratitude and empathy must be sincere, and not just lip service. “Empathy is tough to pull off if it’s artificial,” he notes. “If you haven’t truly internalized those qualities, your insincerity will shine through, and you won’t succeed over the long haul.”

Yadav ranks another soft skill high on the list of must-have qualities for entrepreneurs—patience. He says that entrepreneurs often look at the storybook rise of other ventures and think that something is wrong if their enterprise does not rocket to stardom right out of the gate. “Cultivate patience. If you remain persistent and positive, have trust in yourself and your product, and have plotted and are following a logical path ahead—exercising empathy and gratitude along the way—there’s a good chance you’ll win the long game.”

Yadav notes, however, that if an entrepreneur just can’t seem to engage investors, it’s time to give the core idea a critical look. “Are you solving a problem? Are you filling an important gap? Are you making lives better?” Enterprises that change the world for the better—even in a small way, he says, have the greatest chance of success. That might be a software program that only architects use or a water purification system that will transform Africa, but investors get excited at new ideas that promise positive change. “If you are passionate about the improvements your enterprise will make,” he adds, “that passion can be contagious.”

In the end, Yadav says, the smart entrepreneur stays true to himself—yes, another soft skill. “As you launch and grow your business, don’t try to change your personality to fit your idea of what an entrepreneur should be. An entrepreneur is not the king of an empire. Be humble. Take responsibility for what happens in your company—never pass the buck. Always be your very best self. Success will follow!”