Improving the Odds of Entrepreneurial Success by taking a closer look at MIT’s Eco-System

If you were sitting at a Las Vegas gambling table with a 3% chance of winning big, would you continue to play or fold? Guessing your likely response, then let’s compare this example with launching a startup company. Statistics show that 97% of startups fail after their fifth year of operations with nearly two-thirds in their first year. If your response was to fold at the Las Vegas gambling table, then why are so many institutions encouraging students to launch a new company when the data shows that the odds are severely stacked up against them?

As though these numbers were not discouraging enough, then there are the private equity firms who search through the rubble of startups with the hopes of selecting a winner. Their expectations are even more somber. Of the thousands of business plans reviewed per year, startup investment firms will fund on average 4 deals per year, knowing all along that 3 out of the 4 companies will either fail or break-even after their first year of operations.

So, one might ask, can anything be done to improve the odds of success for a typical startup?

Lab to Market
At universities the term ‘lab to market’ is used to describe the worn path that many young companies must endure to become successful. Their humble beginnings tell a familiar story where an unexpected mishap in a lab inadvertently inspired their startup. For some, the inspiration came from a personal experience, such as in the case of DropBox’s founder, Drew Houston, who got tired of using USB drives to move files from one computer to another. Had Drew not been inconvenienced enough times, DropBox may have evolved differently or not at all. The key to his success was not just his personal revelation and commitment, but also MIT’s established eco-system that was there when needed to grow his nascent idea into a global company. MIT’s contribution was so crucial that one might ask, if every entrepreneur had access to a similar eco-system as MIT offers, would the odds of success improve? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘not necessarily’.

Ideation
Just as moving ideas from lab to market are challenging, coming up with the ideas in the first place or ‘ideation’ requires an entirely new approach and discipline, one that MIT addresses today with the first-of-its-kind ‘proof-of-concept’ center known as the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation – http://deshpande.mit.edu/.

Recently, I attended an awards reception to honor the 2013 winning teams who were approved for nearly $1m in grants. That evening the lobby of the Media Lab (where the event was held at MIT) was buzzing with sponsors, investors, students, faculty and other interested parties. Hoping to be discovered, the teams were on hand to display their progress and answer questions. Unlike a traditional startup competition that select the best business plans, this event focused on the teams with the best business ideas. Appreciating the difference between both ideas and plans is key. Ideation occurs primarily at the very beginning of the entrepreneurial process, while business plans that build upon proven ideas come later.

When Drew Houston stumbled upon his vision, DropBox was just an idea, an idea that could have easily slipped out of his mind had it not been for a timely injection of funds to nudge him along to help him prove his concept further. That nudge, that tap, that light push made all the difference. The timely urgency to nurture ideation at this very initial point in the entrepreneurial process was what inspired Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, to donate $17.5 million to launch the Deshpande Center at MIT.

An Innovative Approach
At the reception I caught up with the founder, Desh, and asked him if he was pleased with the Center’s 10-year record of 110 funded projects with 28 successfully spun out companies. A successful entrepreneur himself, Desh seemed less interested in speaking about his Center’s extraordinary achievements than he was of the impact his Center had among the faculty and graduate students at MIT. To him the true value proposition of the Deshpande Center was less about granting awards to a select few and more on the number of applicants who applied. He felt that the Center’s application process forced researchers to view their work from an ‘idea to impact’ perspective, an approach, he felt, was uncommon among researchers. With his contagious smile, Desh boasted that it was not unusual for non-winning applicants to apply a second or third time.  Last year two such teams that despite not winning a grant from the Center, succeeded in launching their startups anyway. With a deep sense of pride, Desh relished the fact that his Center’s influence had achieved an equally positive impact with every applicant, regardless of who won a grant or not. Through his Center, Desh had created an ‘ideation culture’, one that is often ignored and yet intimately critical to the success of any startup/eco-system.

Surely the odds of entrepreneurial success should improve if more startups had access to established eco-systems, especially those that support ideation early on. But perhaps the lesson to be learned from MIT’s Deshpande Center’s story is less about funding ideation grants and more about giving entrepreneurs a second or even a third chance to prove their concept. Just think how many fantastic ideas are tossed aside and lost forever simply because a business or grant contest is designed to select only three winners?  …or the thousands of business plans tossed in the garbage of an overwhelmed angel investor? …or the business plans that are rejected because of an entrepreneur’s poor presentation skills? Imagine what would happen if one-quarter of the startups presented to a private equity investor were randomly awarded a Deshpande Center-like financial nudge for further proof of concept. Maybe then the odds of succeeding as an entrepreneur would truly improve.

© 2013 Tom Kadala

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One Response to Improving the Odds of Entrepreneurial Success by taking a closer look at MIT’s Eco-System

  1. Rafael Melendez says:

    Irrationality is a barrier that is always encountered in entrepreneurship and elsewhere. Tossing business plans into the waste basket because of physical exhaustion is a perfect example. It bears no merit. If we can find a way to guard against it, that 3 percent might find its way growing to where it should by appreciable value.

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