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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