Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How Many Innovators

One of the main functions of a University is to demonstrate reality. Giving a student the tools and then presenting a realistic path to achieve something with those tools. Not every Physicist will obtain a Nobel Prize. In fact by the nature of the prize it is limited to 3 per year. Assuming a productive lifetime of a Physicist of at most 40 years, say 20 to 60, one has at most 120 opportunities to be in that tier. Now the odds are quite low. That does not mean one's life is meaningless, but that a balance of expectations is reasonable.

Now entrepreneurs fall somewhat in the same category. Almost all fail, and do so the first, second, or third time. The major rule of an entrepreneur, however, is to "burn the boats", meaning to give up all else except achievement of the goal. That is what often makes entrepreneurs appear ruthless, they are of a single focus. The goal. That is also why so few who set out can succeed. Any of us who have been down that path know what that means. It is seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year. It is total dedication, no distractions.

So how does this work out in Academia? MIT has had many entrepreneurs. But they like almost all others had "burned their boats" to get there. One cannot be an active academic and be an entrepreneurial leader. You can be an advisor, a Board member, but not the change agent, not the leader.

So where is this going? Well MIT has announced the Sandbox, the very name being a bit insulting. Sandboxes are for kids, and pets, yes dogs seem to like them, and not for adults. But this Sandbox alleges:
MIT Sandbox invites 11,000 students to innovate.Offering funding up to $25,000, mentoring, and tailored educational experiences, the program will open up new pathways for student entrepreneurs and innovators.

What does this mean? Does this mean that every MIT Grad and Undergrad can start a company while doing their day jobs. It seems so. They continue: 

MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program (Sandbox), an Institute-wide program that will support student-initiated ideas, launched today. The endeavor opens more pathways for all types of student innovators — whether they have a seed of an idea, a nascent technology, a specific startup in mind, or are planning the next moonshot. Sandbox will connect students with tailored educational experiences, mentoring, and up to $25,000 to help qualified students and teams nurture their creative brainstorms. “The primary aim of Sandbox is to develop people, not necessarily startups or products, but the learning will be in the context of advancing an entrepreneurial venture or innovative idea — one that serves an important market or social need,” says Ian A. Waitz, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering and the originator of the program. “It is designed to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be more effective when they go off in the world and practice MIT’s brand of deep scientific and technological innovation.”
The problem is that to be an entrepreneur means to dedicate oneself to a single focus; the success of the business. This may be a gross distraction from what the Institute is supposed to do as its prime mission; educate and innovate. Entrepreneurs must fight for market position, fight for funding, fight for survival. Those are not the talents one builds as an academic; not that there is not a lot of infighting but that type is less than productive in a start up.

In my experience the Academy is not the place for startups. The skill set is not there. The dreams and ideas may be there, but the details of building a team, leadership of a team, selling an idea, raising funding, dealing with contracts and corporate structure, and the day to day issues of running a business, even a candy store, just do not come across anywhere but in the process of doing it. If you want to be an entrepreneur, then leave academia and start.